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Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon
The waiting game.
HIRING 101

Should women be given special treatment during job interviews?

Cheryl Swirnow
By Cheryl Swirnow

Cheryl Swirnow, co-founder and CEO, Sherpaa

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around interviewing “best practices,” and a number of CEO’s have also begun speaking out more candidly on how they aim to achieve the most beneficial interview process for both the interviewer and job candidate. From Alexa von Tobel’s emphasis on genuine honesty (you go, girl!) to François-Henri Pinault’s focus on encouraging women to “speak up” in interviews—diverse opinions abound.

As a former job-seeker turned HR executive—now an entrepreneur–I’ve been on all sides of the equation. While it may seem somewhat obvious, in my experience I find that the best approach is also the most simple: fairness and equal opportunity.

The aim of any interview is to help a hiring manager evaluate whether or not the person being interviewed is the best fit for the available position, and also for the candidate to decide if the job and company in question is right for them. Unfortunately, in my experience, achieving the ideal level of fairness in this process is quite difficult. And often times, differences in practice ultimately disadvantage the candidate when an interviewer or corporation has a predisposed bias.

If a question is inappropriate to ask a man in an interview, then it is inappropriate to ask a woman.

For example, I have been asked dozens of times what my average day looks like—a not so subtle nod to the fact that the person interviewing me knows I have a son. Implicit in that question are several others: “What time would I get to the office? What time do I need to leave?” Meanwhile, my male counterparts are never asked those types of questions, despite being parents themselves.

Although François-Henri might argue differently, there should really be no difference in the questions that a woman is asked versus the questions a man is asked during an interview. If a question is inappropriate to ask a man, then it is inappropriate to ask a woman. Depending on the job, employers should generally not be searching for skill sets in men that they would not be searching for in women.

A more effective strategy involves taking the names off of resumes and replacing them with numbers. This really allows the employer or hiring manager to get rid of any of their inherent biases (and this goes not just for sex, but also ethnicity, etc.) and focus on a candidate’s qualifications.  This proved to be a very interesting, not to mention useful exercise, yielding stronger candidates during the interview rounds, while weeding out some of the eliminating bias through one step of the application process.

My personal experience, after many years as a professional woman, has taught me to feel comfortable asking for the salary I believe I’m worth.

But what about that last, inevitably fraught step: salary? Studies show us that as a result on a variety of factors, women—both in the US and abroad—still struggle to achieve equal pay. Cultural stigmas that can make women feel trapped between social mores don’t help the negotiating process. My personal experience, after many years as a professional woman, has taught me to feel comfortable asking for the salary I believe I’m worth. This shows an interviewer that you are confident in your self-worth. If they react to that distastefully (as long as you’re not asking to be an entry-level millionaire), it’s probably not a place you want to work anyways.

I’ve also learned to be bold in discussing my accomplishments instead of apologizing for them. I have witnessed so many times women explain why they “weren’t really running their team,” when in fact they were. It’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to tout your accomplishments and be proud of them. The confidence I have found through my work—and my ability to promote that work to the world—is what allowed me to drive Sherpaa forward alongside my co-founder, Jay Parkinson. As an entrepreneur and the face of our company, I know that every day is essentially an interview with my customers, current and potential.

While it’s clear that a perfect, unbiased interview may only be achievable in a vacuum, continuing to talk openly about the problems women face—and the strategies that can bridge the gap—is the only way we’ll ever make significant changes. There is no right way to conduct an interview, no matter what side of the table you’re on. But there are several things employers and candidates can do in the meantime to ensure workplaces move toward more equal interview and hiring practices in the future.