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Why don’t employers want to hire intelligent women?

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Moya Crockett
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Women who achieve top marks at university have less success in job-hunting than those with average grades, according to new research – and there’s a depressing reason why.  

We’re used to hearing about how girls and young women outperform their male counterparts in academic settings. Girls do better than boys overall at A-levels and the Scottish Higher exams in the UK, and data from Ucas in 2017 revealed that young women are now 36% more likely to go to university than men – the largest gap since records began. Research shows that men who do go to university in Britain are more likely to drop out, while women are more likely to achieve a 2:1 upon graduation. There are clearly important issues to be addressed around male underachievement that have nothing to do with female success – but when it comes to education, young women are thriving.

However, it seems that academic attainment might actually hold women back in finding work in the ‘real world’. According to a recent study, women who graduate from university with top grades are more likely to struggle to find work than men with the same academic record – especially if they studied a male-dominated subject.

The research was carried out by Natasha Quadlin, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, and published in the American Sociological Review. She created CVs for over 2,100 fictional university graduates and sent off pairs of applications for entry-level jobs across the US.

The applications in each pair contained similar cover letters, academic histories and gender-neutral hobbies, but different genders. This, Quadlin reasoned, would help show how being male or female affects one’s chances of getting a job interview.

She found that academic success didn’t have much of an effect on whether a man was invited to proceed to the second stage of the application process. Men with a C+ average, for example, were called back at about the same rate as men with an A-average grade. The only factor that increased men’s likelihood of being called back was if they had a top A-grade.  

High-achieving female university graduates struggle when applying for jobs, according to the study 

Women’s attainment, in contrast, had what Quadlin describes as “an inverted U-shaped effect” on their job-hunting success. Female university graduates with moderately good grades were – unsurprisingly – more likely to get a response from potential employers than women who didn’t do well in their degrees.

But women who’d achieved the highest possible grades were actually less likely to be called back than their female counterparts who graduated with a B average. Not only that: these high-achieving women were called back less than the men with the lowest grades in the study.

“We like to think that we’ve progressed past gender inequality, but it’s still there,” says Quadlin. “The study suggests that women who didn’t spend a lot of time on academics but are ‘intelligent enough’ have an advantage over women who excel in school.”

She also found that the penalty for high-achieving women was most concentrated among women who graduated in mathematics. Men who majored in maths and received the highest grades had a call back rate of 25%, while female math majors who got the same grades only received a response 8% of the time.

“In other words, high-achieving women may be most readily penalised when they demonstrate achievement in STEM fields where they are underrepresented and expected to perform poorly,” Quadlin writes. 

“Let’s hope you’re smart, but not too smart”

But if those responsible for hiring decisions aren’t looking for the smartest women, what qualities do they value? To try and answer this question, Quadlin asked 261 hiring managers to look at her dummy CVs and cover letters and assess whether they’d want to interview the applicants, based on how their perceived their qualifications and personal characteristics.

Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, she found that employers preferred female applicants who were seen as pleasant and agreeable, and who were reasonably competent but not excessively high-achieving in terms of academics. The standard of ‘niceness’ was not applied to male candidates.

“Employers value competence and commitment among men applicants, but they privilege likeability among women applicants, ultimately creating liabilities for high-achieving women,” Quadlin concludes.

“This standard helps moderate-achieving women, who are often described as sociable and outgoing, but hurts high-achieving women, whose personalities are viewed with more scepticism.” 

Don’t downplay your achievements on your CV 

Quadlin’s research shows that there is still a pervasive bias against highly intelligent, qualified women when employers are making hiring decisions. This would appear to undermine the argument, often made in debates about the merits of gender quotas, that hiring should be based solely on ‘who’s best for the job’.

It also invites us to question why, if likeability is still seen as a woman’s most important professional asset, female cleverness appears to be equated with a lack of likeability. There’s no rational reason why a woman who achieved top grades at university would be any less sociable or pleasant than one who graduated with average marks – indicating that those in power may simply prefer to hire women who they think will be less likely to challenge them intellectually.

Ultimately, it’s clear that much more work needs to be done to make sure that hiring decisions are not affected by traditional gender stereotypes. Women shouldn’t have to underplay their achievements or dumb themselves down in order to get the job they want; the responsibility lies with employers to do better.

Images: Getty Images / Pexels 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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