Being overqualified for a job impacts women and men differently

“And how committed are you to your career?”
“And how committed are you to your career?”
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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Rejection for a job because you’re “overqualified” has a certain kind of sting.

But there is logic to it (even if you don’t agree): Hiring managers need to weigh several things, like a candidate’s suitability for the role against the likelihood the candidate will stick with it. It makes sense to reject people who have so many qualifications that they might soon get bored, or be poached by the competition.

The problem is that over-qualification is viewed very differently in female versus male candidates.

Elizabeth Lauren Campbell from the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management and Oliver Hahl from Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business created a set of CVs with stereotypical male and female names, but otherwise identical qualifications. One set of male and female CVs were given qualifications which made them highly suitable for a specific job description, while the other set were designed to look “overqualified” for the role.

The researchers asked hiring managers to assess candidates’ suitability for the job. The results, published in Organization Science, showed that male CVs in the “overqualified” group were more often rejected than the female CVs in the same group.

The hiring managers in the research were less likely to hire qualified women than qualified men. But the inverse was true for overqualified candidates: Hiring managers were more likely to hire overqualified women than overqualified men.

Spotting gender bias in hiring

Why is this a problem? First, it implies that in order to get the same job, men simply need to be qualified, whereas women need to have something extra. If she’s not too qualified for the role at hand, it suggests, a woman will likely lose out to a man in the hiring process.

But the other problem is the managers’ reasoning behind their decision-making: When a male candidate was overqualified, the managers assumed he was committed to his career, but that he wouldn’t be committed to the company he was seeking to join—he’d think he was “too good” for the job and soon leave, they assumed.

When it came to women, however, the managers saw over-qualification as a sign that women were keen on the job at hand, and more likely to stick with it.

In two open-ended questions appended to a survey given to the hiring managers about their choices, they rationalized overqualified women’s applications by guessing that they were trying to escape gender discrimination at a previous job. They also revealed beliefs that women value relationships more, suggesting they’d be less likely to leave the company as soon as something better came along.

When it came to qualified candidates, the managers assumed that men were more committed to their overall careers than women with identical CVs: Another piece of evidence that in order simply to prove themselves equal, women still have to invest more, and work harder, than their male counterparts.

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See also: How to keep bias out of the hiring process