At 42 years old, Emma C.* was stunned to hear that the recruitment agency she was working with declined to put her up for the job she wanted because she was overqualified. “I was floored. I was scared,” says Emma. “I thought ‘I’m never going to work again.’”
Eventually, when Emma got an offer for a different job for which she was also overqualified, she told herself “I better take this.” But, perhaps unsurprisingly, she got bored—the role didn’t challenge her, and she was disappointed that there were no opportunities to learn and grow. She quit, telling herself to take more initiative in her career choices—and more risks.
Emma’s experience tracks with that of many women, according to a new study published in Organization Science that analyzes the differences between male and female job seekers.
Simply put, men are more likely to pursue roles for which they are underqualified by overestimating (and often overstating) how their on-the-job experiences make them suitable candidates.
There’s nothing wrong with casting career accomplishments in their best light, of course—as long as candidates honestly represent what they have and haven’t achieved in their professional lives. But there’s a more insidious trend impacting women conducting job searches: According to the study, hiring managers are less likely to hire qualified women than qualified men, but more likely to hire overqualified women than overqualified men.
That’s a good thing, right?
Not necessarily. The net-net is that women may well need to be overqualified to be hired. “To be clear, not being rejected for being overqualified isn’t an advantage for women,” explains Elizabeth L. Campbell, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of management at the University of California, San Diego Rady School of Management. “Sufficiently qualified men were still more likely to be hired than sufficiently qualified women.”
Parsing the data reveals that hiring managers trust that overqualified female candidates will be more committed to their new jobs when compared to overqualified men, who are viewed as more likely to leave. “We found that women were consistently seen as more committed to the firm because of their perceived communality while men were viewed as more committed to their careers,” says the study’s second author, Oliver Hahl, an associate professor at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
And because this commitment is evaluated through a lens of gendered assumptions, an uneven playing field is created. Men, for example, only need to demonstrate their commitment across one factor (their career), while women must show commitment along two factors (their career and the organization).
So, what’s an overqualified or qualified woman to do to combat this bias? Here are a few tactics.
Be Specific. “Walking a hiring manager through your experience as it relates to the role can highlight the value you’d bring to the position,” says Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, an organization that provides learning and analytics to measure the impact of social dynamics in the workplace. “Redirect their focus to how your qualifications can benefit the organization.”
Know What’s Legit. An interviewer can ask questions around age or salary history to gauge whether you’re overqualified or underqualified. Understanding what an employer legally can’t ask can help you guide the conversation. For example, some states prohibit questions around salary history, but if you live in a state where that’s legal, you can focus on salary requirements instead.
Try a Blind Resume. Amber Clayton, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management, suggests trying a blind resume to minimize biases in the hiring process. “Omitting identifiable information can help a hiring manager make decisions based on your experience rather than their assumptions,” she says. For instance, you can exclude information like your graduation year, which might raise an overqualification or underqualification flag.
Don’t Avoid the Elephant in the Room. During an interview, proactively address your qualifications when answering questions—whether you’re overqualified or underqualified. You could say you’re interested in the role because you love the organization and want to get your foot in the door, or because you’re transitioning to a career you’re more passionate about and are ready to learn and grow. Helping a hiring manager understand why you want the job might dispel their concerns around your qualifications.
Think Hard About the Money (and Title). It’s likely that a job for which you’re overqualified is going to pay less than previous roles or come with a title that’s perceived as a “step down.” Can you afford it? Can you negotiate work-life balance accommodations to make up for the reduction? After the initial glow conferred by landing the job, will you start to feel regretful—even resentful? If you can, talk to people who have taken “step-down” jobs to see how they coped.
*This source asked that her last name be omitted from the story.
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Deidre Huntington is a writer and digital nomad who also runs her own strategic communications business. She is currently based in the Washington, D.C. area and is passionate about women finding their own path to joy and success.