First of all, thanks to Kendra Little (b|t) for hosting this month’s T-SQL Tuesday. This month’s topic (Interviewing Patterns & Anti-Patterns) is a great topic that’s generating a lot of interesting responses from many different perspectives. Beyond that, I’ve seen Kendra present at PASS events and various webinars and she presents deep technical content in a very engaging way. Definitely check out her blog and follow her on Twitter!
As for my submission to this month’s blog party, I was excited to cover the original topic I had for this post – “Interviews Aren’t Trivia Contests”. I may still blog that at some point, as I believe I’ve definitely improved as an interviewer and would like to pass along some things I’ve learned the hard way so you don’t make the same mistakes I have.
That said, a couple of conversations I had at SQL Saturday Louisville this weekend changed my mind on my post for this edition of T-SQL Tuesday. Hearing women discuss the subtle and overt sexism that they have to deal with in IT is always jarring and it prompted me to relate an interview story from my wife. Even though my wife has been in technical fields her entire career and I’ve both managed and worked alongside women in IT, hearing these types of stories is always jarring, upsetting, and thought-provoking. This post is most certainly about a couple of interviewing anti-patterns, as you’ll see below.
While my wife is currently in IT (she is a PMP-certified project manager specializing in software delivery and implementation), this story dates from 2012 when she was interviewing for a ceramic and materials engineering position in the Midwest. She has a B.S. in Ceramic Engineering, an M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering, and has her name on at least one patent and multiple academic papers. Long story short, she was indisputably qualified for the position for which she was interviewing.
Anti-Pattern 1: Subtle Sexism
This interview, as many others are, was a series of one-on-one meetings with folks in HR, on the technical side, and points in-between. There had been nothing particularly noteworthy until she interviewed with a guy in a very senior technical position. After a few minutes, he asked my wife a seemingly innocuous, albeit cringe-worthy, question (but more on that in a bit): “how does a woman get into engineering?”. My wife explained her interest in and aptitude for math and then a little more about what drove her specifically towards materials science and engineering.
Anti-Pattern 2: Shocking Sexism
His response was “interesting, most women who get into engineering are more flat-chested.” This is the part of the blog where you should hear a record-scratching noise in your head as you’re shocked by what you just read. Sadly, the few times I’ve relayed this story over the years the women I tell are not nearly as surprised as the men I tell. It goes without saying that this is an interviewing anti-pattern of the highest order. It’s sexist, demeaning, crude, lawsuit-worthy at best, and illegal at worst.
But I said I’d take you back to the seemingly innocuous question, as over the years it’s troubled me nearly as much as the obviously horrifying commentary on my wife’s figure during an interview. “How does a woman get into engineering?” As one of my wife’s friends said, the proper response was “the same way a man does”. The subtlety of this is perhaps more insidious than the overt sexism of the crude comment, as the implication is “why are you here, you don’t seem to belong?”.
If you take anything away from this post, I want it to be this sentiment: as an interviewer, that candidate across the desk/phone from you is there because they believe they’re qualified for the opportunity and want to work with you and your company. Everybody’s career journey is different, but the subtle or overt implication that because they don’t fit the stereotype in your head they don’t belong there is simply unacceptable. Not only could you be costing your company the best candidate for the position, you may plant a seed in that person’s head that takes them years to overcome or puts them off their chosen career path entirely.
To end this on a positive note, this did not have a negative impact on my wife’s mentality and she’s fantastic at her current job. I still wish she would have slapped the guy, though!
4 thoughts on “T-SQL Tuesday #93: Shock and Subtlety of Sexist Interviewers”
But if she had slapped him, he would then be telling the story about the “stereotypical female response to being challenged”, and it would have, in his tiny mind, validated that he was right. Your wife definitely made the right choice in rising above the moment.
You’re absolutely right – it’s the lizard part of my brain that hoped she decked the guy. She handled all of that much better than I would have.
Thank you for writing this! I love your point about the problems with the subtle question.
When I design interview questions, I try to stick with the same list of questions for all candidates, and when I’m doing probing style questions I try to ask myself if it’s something I would ask EVERY candidate. If it’s not, then it’s not an appropriate question.
Maybe subtlety was lost on that guy? Maybe he wasn’t a sexist jerk after all? Perhaps he was an engineer on the high – functioning side of the autism spectrum, who doesn’t do well communicating or understanding the emotional impact his words might have. I could be wrong- it’s just a pattern I’ve noticed in my own experiences as a WIT.