Female academics ‘interrupted more in interviews than men’

Treatment of engineering scholars seen as sign of hostile ‘prove it again’ attitude

June 28, 2017
Woman being silenced by hand
Source: Alamy

Women are more likely to be interrupted mid-sentence during an academic job interview than men, a new study says.

Female interviewees also face more follow-up questions from panellists, making women more likely to rush through their presentations than men, according to research by US academics who believe a hostile “prove it again” attitude towards women may partially explain why some disciplines remain so male-dominated.

As part of a two-year study of academic hiring in the engineering faculties of two leading US research universities, 119 job interviews were videoed and analysed by researchers. On average, women faced around five “unacknowledged” questions in which they were interrupted mid-sentence by interviewers, whereas men faced only four on average.

Women were also asked around two more follow-up questions on average (seven in total) than men, says the study, “Gender in Engineering Departments: are there Gender Differences in Interruptions of Academic Job Talks?”, published in the journal Social Sciences.

Overall, women faced 17 questions in total on average, while men faced 14, despite their having the same level of experience, meaning that a “higher proportion of women’s talk time is taken up by the audience asking questions”, the paper says. More male-dominated interview panels tend to ask more questions of both sexes, they add.

In the case of the five male-dominated engineering departments analysed, where the proportion of female staff varied between 4 per cent and 18 per cent, researchers from the San Diego and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California and from the University of Southern California argue that the more frequent interruptions faced by women mean that they “often have less time to bring their talk to a compelling conclusion”.

While they did not collect data to show if more questions hurt or help candidates, their recordings show “verbal cues [that] clearly indicate that they are rushing to get through their carefully prepared slide decks and reach the punchline of their talk”.

These include “for the sake of time, I’m going to skip this part”, “there’s not much time left; I will rush through this” and “I’m going really quick here because I want to get to the second part of the talk”. Such rushing is correlated with a high number of questions, the paper says, and may suggest “stricter standards of competence demanded by evaluators of short-listed women applying for a masculine-typed job”.

“Questions piled on to previous questions…may indicate a challenge to the presenter’s competence – not only in their prepared talk but also in their response to questions,” the authors state, suggesting there is a “prove it again” bias that was a “catch-22 for women”.

“Even shortlisted women with impressive CVs may still be assumed to be less competent, are challenged, sometimes excessively, and therefore have less time to present a coherent and compelling talk,” the paper argues.

These “subtle conversational patterns…form an almost invisible bias, which allows a climate of challenging women’s competence to persist”, it concludes.


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