Blast from the Past: Interviewing Women Candidates


Earlier this week, a coworker who understands my enjoyment at rage humor brought me a special present from the past -- a pamphlet titled "Interviewing Women Candidates" created by the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1974.

It is equal parts hilarious and horrifying how much of this still seems necessary and relevant 40 years later. I'm tempted to create a slightly modernized version and start handing copies out at tech events.

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It is difficult to know, sometimes, how to act with someone of another race, another generation, the other sex. What may have been the norm yesterday isn't accepted today and may not be tolerated tomorrow.

Interviewing women as candidates or potential applicants is one situation for which the norms are changing. Here are some rules to go by. They are not intended to establish that any specific behavior is legal or illegal, contrary to Federal regulations or not. The perspective is one of the common sense, common courtesy and a professional approach.

As a supervisor filling a vacant position, or as a representative of your agency interviewing potential applicants, you want to do the right thing, to make a favorable impression for your organization and to avoid embarrassment for yourself and the people you interview. This is an attempt to help.

Use the right words. Try to remember that the women in your office are not "girls" or "gals." And the woman you're interviewing isn't "sweetie" or "honey" or "dear" -- even if you are a good ol' boy, even if you do call men you've never met before things like "pal" or "chum."

Can we please stop arguing about calling women girls now that you realize how long this has been considered inappropriate?

Don't inquire into certain areas that are none of our business.

  • Her marital status (or nonmarital arrangements) or plans.
  • What her husband does, how he feels about her working, traveling, or anything else.
  • Whether she has any children (or plans to) and how many, what ages or sex they are.
  • Arrangements for the care of her children.
  • Her views on birth control, abortion, women's lib.

Don't bring up your prejudices. You're entitled to them, of course, but you aren't entitled to do anything about them on company time.

  • Women shouldn't travel alone, shouldn't travel with men, shouldn't stay overnight in another city.
  • Women aren't aggressive enough.
  • They are too emotional.
  • They never stick with a job.
  • They won't accept travel assignments.
  • That women want to work only until marriage, or that they all want to marry.
  • That women are absent from work more than men.
  • That they use more sick leave than men.
  • Women don't want responsibility.
  • Can't supervise men.
  • Can't supervise women.
  • Aren't interested in certain fields.
  • Aren't mobile.

It's ridiculous how many of these prejudices (and that is exactly what they are) still exist today. I've heard a number of these in person and probably seen all of them on Hacker News. I would be thrilled if I never again have someone tell me that women aren't interested in programming because biology.

Don't flirt, don't be patronizing ("you'll find lots of boyfriends"). Don't presume: Interviewers sometimes take advantage of an interviewee's friendliness to act as if there is a degree of friendship.

I've heard stories from several friends who had this happen in job interviews within the last year or so.

Don't joke. Some men find it embarrassing to behave toward women in a completely businesslike way. It can bring on the same kind of feelings you had as a child when you were trying to lie and thought the smirk you were suppressing must be obvious to everyone. The fact is that when women are treated as adult human beings, they don't notice anything strange about it -- or you.

Wow. Let me repeat that. When women are treated as adult human beings, they don't notice anything strange about it. How ridiculous is it that people have to be told that?

Incidentally, in making a selection or recommendation, it is improper to give consideration to such factors as the following:

  • That supervisors or managers might prefer men.
  • Customers/clients wouldn't want to deal with women.
  • Coworkers might object.
  • Women's work lacks credibility.
  • The job involves travel, or travel with the opposite sex.
  • It involves unusual working conditions.

If you are interviewing -- say, on campus -- it is your responsibility as a Federal representative to assure that candidates are scheduled impartially.

It is improper to place undue emphasis on conditions of employment in the hope of discouraging the candidate, i.e., to solicit a declination. It is for the applicant, not the employer, to decide whether or not she wants the job -- based, of course, on a clear explanation of what the conditions are.

Finally, don't indicate your interest in a woman candidate as one whose selection would help improve your EEO picture (it's an insulting suggestion that you'd apply different standards).

This reminds me of men telling women they were hired as tokens. This still happens.

The general rule is that one should treat women applicants and men applicants in the same way. But it doesn't make it right if you also go through the motions of asking men, say, about their prospects for parenthood: The point is that in most cases men have no reason to suppose that an improper significance would be attached to the answer, whereas women do.

Discriminatory behavior is as improper when it is not intended as when it is, and the appearance can be as important as the reality. That you ask certain questions not related to the job wouldn't necessarily show that you mean to discriminate, but such questions can be used and have been used in a discriminatory way, and women are increasingly aware of and resentful of this. The fact that certain questions are not relevant to consideration for employment is why they are improper when introduced into an employment interview.

Hey, even in 1974, they knew that intent wasn't as important as outcome.

There are a lot of don'ts. Where, you may ask, are the do's? What can you talk about? Simple: There's the job, its duties and responsibilities. The organization, its missions, programs and achievements. Career possibilities and opportunities for growth, development, advancement. Where the job is located, travel, mobility, equipment and facilities available (especially important with scientists). The individual's qualifications: abilities, experience, education, interests. The wonder is that one can cover all the ground that needs to be covered, let alone have any time left for irrelevancies.

Oh hey, there's so many useful and interesting things to talk to ladies about. Why are you being an asshole again?

One last rule, though. Don't go the other way: Don't take pains to point out how fair-minded you and your organization are (it will sound phony anyway) or give an instant replay of every female success story. And don't make a big deal about being mature: If you've decided to go along with "Ms." and avoid masculine pronouns when you mean man or woman, that's fine but at least don't put it in italics.

I see this come up a lot from people and organizations who are responsible for poor behavior. Instead of owning it and apologizing, they focus on all the other things they did that supposedly make up for it.

[This guide was written with an awareness that many supervisors and agency representatives are men. While some of the points here obviously apply only to them, most would be applicable regardless of the interviewer's sex.]

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