Job Interview Discrimination Against Women

Conscious and unconscious actions drive gender discrimination.
Conscious and unconscious actions drive gender discrimination. (Image: la rencontre image by Yves Damin from <a href=''></a>)

Research across the decades has shown that women are at a disadvantage compared to men in all aspects of employment, from hiring to pay and promotion. Because the hiring process is usually the least transparent stage of employment, gender discrimination becomes more likely, as employers have less reason to fear discovery and legal retribution. Job interviews offer one avenue through which women may be disadvantaged during the hiring process.

How It Manifests

Gender discrimination takes different forms during the hiring process, and job interviews bring female candidates face-to-face with those holding the power over whether they will be selected. During interviews, employers may pose questions that have a discriminatory intent, such as asking a candidate if she has children. As Southwest Texas State University law professor Jon Bible points out, it is not that the question itself is discriminatory but that it negatively impacts women more than men, as more women than men are likely to be passed over by the employer looking to avoid child care conflicts. Women may also be penalized for their appearance or conformity--or failure to conform--to gender stereotypes. In research pioneered by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, during interviews for jobs requiring stereotypically masculine traits, stereotypically feminine women were devalued and vice versa, creating a paradox for female applicants that the research duo termed ambivalent sexism.

Interview Questions

According to Professor Bible, it is a myth that it is illegal to ask certain questions during job interviews. Employers may ask any question they want during interviews but, if the employee later brings a discrimination suit, if the question appears geared toward discrimination, the judge and jury are likely to interpret it as having such intent. Questions that might suggest gender discrimination include asking whether child care will pose a challenge for a female interviewee or whether a young woman intends to marry or start a family in the near future. Bible further elaborates that such questions often come as casual chitchat, not formal questions.

Ambivalent Sexism

Glick and Fiske's work revealed that people often have warm feelings toward feminine women--but that these feelings may prevent them from putting women in positions of assertiveness and power needed in many work environments. As Joanna Grossman and Linda McClain point out, feminine stereotypes equate women with weakness and ineffectuality. When a woman meets a potential employer face-to face for the first time, observations about her femininity may impede the employer from viewing her as strong enough to perform well in the job.


As Trond Petersen and Theo Togstad of the University of California, Berkeley, point out, gender bias flows from unconscious biases and beliefs about how a woman should act. Because people aren't aware of these thoughts, they often act on them without realizing it. In a study conducted in a Swedish bank, the authors discovered that making employers aware of potential unconscious biases may reduce gender discrimination during the hiring process. They also advise putting policies into place to identify highly qualified female applicants during other stages of the hiring process.

Legal Protection

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects women from discrimination and harassment in the workplace, including during recruitment and hiring. Interpretation of Title VII includes discrimination based on pregnancy. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 further entitles women to compensatory and punitive damages if determined in court that intentional discrimination occurred, as well as any actions--such as being awarded a job--that makes the individual whole, or as she would have been if discrimination had not occurred.

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