When Sheryl Sandberg published her book Lean In in 2013, a catchy finding mentioned in it started to turn into received wisdom: men apply for positions if they meet just 60% of the requirements, while women only apply if they meet 100% of them.
It did not take long for journalists to reveal this claim was only based on a speculative comment made by a senior executive at Hewlett Packard – no quantitative data was used to generate this “fact”.
So what does research actually say about the difference between men and women’s job-search behaviour?
There is some evidence to suggest that women are more selective when applying for jobs. For instance, last year, LinkedIn examined the job search behaviour of their users in great detail. They found that despite viewing the same number of jobs as male users on the platform, women were:
- Less likely to apply for positions they had viewed on the website
- Less likely to apply for positions that were more senior than their current position (what LinkedIn call ‘stretch roles’)
- More likely to be hired when compared to men applying for the same position as them
In other words, LinkedIn’s research shows that women on average apply for fewer positions, and in particular for less senior positions. So it may be that women are just applying for positions that are safer bets for them which leads to higher success rates per application.
We’ve corroborated these results at BIT. In a recent analysis of recruitment data across four large UK-based organisations we found that women were more likely to be hired than men when applying for the same positions in 3 out of 4 of the organisations.
While these findings suggest that women may indeed set the bar lower and only apply once they are highly qualified for a given position, we do not have the data to confirm this. To get closer, we would need to directly establish whether women are more qualified when applying to the same positions as men. Unfortunately, the organisations we worked with do not hold data about candidate qualifications or experience on their systems (nor did LinkedIn look into this question directly).
Wait, but why are men and women behaving differently?
While the evidence shows that men and women do differ in their job search behaviours, the cause of this divergence is less well understood. A popular argument for explaining women’s behaviour is lower confidence (the crux of Sandberg’s argument in Lean in). Yet, according to the University of Chicago Economist Marianne Bertrand, only 10-15% of differences in labour market outcomes are due to psychological attributes such as risk aversion, confidence or competitiveness. Many other factors can explain why women do not apply for more demanding roles:
- Women are much more likely to require flexible or part-time work, which is much less likely to be offered in senior positions.
- A masculine culture may be more likely in senior roles (and is sometimes conveyed by the wording of job adverts).
- It is possible that women are being strategic. Past negative experiences may teach women that they need to fulfill more requirements to be hired. Current evidence suggests that women are sometimes held to a higher standard, although analysis by TalentWorks has failed to find this bias.
- Women may be socialised to follow the rules more than men, and, therefore, may perceive advertised requirements as less flexible than they often are.
- Women are more time poor than men, so they may have less time to spend on applications. This is primarily because mothers spend nearly two and a half hours per day on unpaid housework, compared to fathers who spend less than an hour.
The good news is that, with the right data, it should be possible to make progress on these pressing questions. A recruitment platform or even an employer that holds information about the experience and qualifications of its candidates can directly investigate many of these questions.
If you work for a recruitment platform or employer that hold this information and would like to work with us to investigate these questions – please get in touch with Rony.firstname.lastname@example.org.