Perception Isn’t Always Reality: Recognizing Gender Differences in Interview Styles


By Robin Mamlet

Women in higher education leadership roles often find themselves alone at the top with few, if any, female peers. The reasons for this are many and complex. Of the many factors that limit women from moving up in the ranks, two should be easy to resolve: how candidates present themselves in job interviews and how search committees interpret those interviews.

I sit in on a few dozen interviews for academic president, provost, or cabinet-level positions every month, and have noticed some distinct differences in how men and women present themselves in interviews, often to the detriment of the female candidates. I recently shared my observations and advice for both candidates and search committees in Gender in the Job Interview, for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Robin Mamlet

That advice does not include suggesting that women act more like men in interviews. But, I think that the career trajectory of many women is lowered because their self-presentation doesn’t align with their interviewers’ expectations. This gap could be vastly improved with greater awareness on both sides, along with better direction and coaching from those overseeing the search.

What Search Committees Can Do

What can search committees do to better recognize the leadership potential of female candidates? In general, committees should remember that different types of leaders present differently in interviews, and that though style is important, results are what matters. Some of the advice I give search committees includes:

  • Remember that you are looking for the person who will succeed in the position, not necessarily the best interviewer.
  • Don’t rule out a candidate based on first impressions.
  • Consider the potential for double standards and double binds.
  • Beware of candidates who interview too well—they may have had too much practice.
  • Look at the big picture—the interview is just a piece of the puzzle.
  • Keep a broad conception of the definition of leadership.

What Candidates Can Do

And what can candidates do to best present themselves in an interview? Like all good search consultants, I know my candidates well and can anticipate when a highly qualified candidate won’t present strongly. In these cases, I advise my candidate to do the following:

  • Think about how you want to come across to the committee. Sit tall and don’t apologize.
  • Consider your reputation and be ready to respond to questions you anticipate from the committee.
  • Start strong to make a great first impression.
  • Take the appropriate and deserved credit for your impact and achievements.
  • Show confidence and presence, like the leader you are.

Everyone involved in the hiring process benefits from a heightened awareness of gender-based differences in language and behavior. Search committee members most of all need to recognize the limiting effect their perceptions can have on the ascendance of women to top positions in higher education.

Robin Mamlet is managing partner of the Education Practice at Witt/Kieffer. Robin draws on nearly 35 years of experience in education, including 23 years in academic administration.

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