Melissa Arulappan, on the gender bias in PR job interviews

“It looks like baby making time for the whole team. Stop hiring women in your team.” 

Melissa Arulappan

If you studied in a convent school for girls in India, you would be familiar with some unwritten strictures – knee length socks, skirts not more than 3” above the knee, no double steps, no chewing gum, no sitting with your legs crossed and so on. None of these were a determinant of academic or extra-curricular success yet they determined whether you got an A or B or even an E on conduct scores and, in my school, whether you were eligible for a haloed brown ribbon that you wore on your sleeve to brand you as an outstanding student.

Going by questions women are asked at interviews, one could write a fresh set of unwritten rules that exist in hiring women in public relations and communications (probably true of other disciplines too) – no married women, no unmarried women of ‘marriageable age’, no women with young children, no women who stay far from work, no women who earn more than their husbands and so on. Many women who shared their interview experiences with me were of the firm opinion that being a woman slotted them into a high-risk category, one that gets progressively higher as women change their status from single to married to parent.

Said one woman who was interviewing with a well-known multinational company and didn't get the job. “Most likely I was a ‘risky hire’ because I was close to marriageable age in their biased minds.” Here’s just a sample of questions she was asked - “This office is far away - will you be able to travel that far? Won't the distance be too much for you? Will your husband allow you to work so far away?” When she said she was not married, the questions continued. “When are you planning to get married? Will you work after you're married? Would they allow you to work after you have a child?”

Some of the happiest phases in one’s life – marriage, children – are, for many women, the most disruptive and discouraging when it comes to progressing their careers. Personal questions about when they plan to get pregnant are common at interviews as are questions about managing children. “It was a nightmare for me,” said a young mother whose nine years of communication experience was completely disregarded when she tried to re-join the work force after a maternity break. “I started believing I would have to give up my career now that I was a mother as no one wanted to hire a new mother.” Another young mother was asked about her ability to spend late nights and do justice to her job. “Is efficiency measured by how long one works?” she asks.

”I felt that I could never shake off the breaks in my career, no matter how much full time experience I built up. I didn't interview for two years after a particularly demoralising interview experience,” said another communications professional. “Recently too, after 16 years of experience, I was asked in an interview with a leading organisation if my breaks indicated a lack of commitment to my career.”

A fellow communicator shared her experience of being at a roundtable where a start-up founder asked, "Why would I hire a pregnant woman who will join my company and then take a maternity break for six months? I'm not a big company that can absorb losses for that long. So I ask every woman in the interview if they are married, thinking of getting pregnant and if they're newly married, I don't take the risk of hiring them!"

In some instances, women spoke of how hard it was to negotiate their salaries if they were a two income household and the bias towards assuming that a woman’s salary was just pocket money. Then there are other unconscious biases around caste and community, “The HR Head who was closing my appointment told me that he was impressed with how a marwari girl from Kolkata was 'allowed' to work and that too in an area like communications.” The all-male interview panel also pre-decided that while her posting was in a smaller town, they would be flexible to relocate her to a bigger city when she got married!

At another end of the spectrum is an ageism bias where if you are older, that is perceived as a negative. The National Bureau of Economic Research’s research shows that résumés of older women get far fewer call backs than those of older men and younger applicants of either sex. 

About two years ago, the HR manager of a large and ‘reputed’ organisation sent me a WhatsApp to ask my age after talking to me about a great communications opportunity in their organisation. I was curious as to what it had to do with the role – she mentioned wanting a three-year commitment at least. This despite the fact their job spec spoke about the organisation being an equal opportunity employer! Needless to say, I did not pursue the opportunity further. I could walk away…not every woman can do so.

According to Global Women in PR (GWPR), only one third of women are currently in senior roles within the global PR industry, whilst the industry itself is two third female. We all know too well the benefits of having a gender diverse workforce but many things have got to give to make it happen, starting with the interview process. Interview biases that eliminate women purely on considerations other than their skills need to be eliminated. We need better structured and standardised interview questions. We need diverse interview panels.

There is also the larger issue, the right to privacy. Do companies have the right to ask candidates to disclose their marital status and family plans? Do we need a better version of 'don't ask, don't tell' norm that was prevalent in the US Army regarding sexual orientation?

This, after all, is the era of empathetic leadership. There’s some good advice here.

Note: The article was prompted by a friend who’s into paragliding and was recently told, while interviewing for a corporate communications job, that they didn’t think she would be suited for a CorpComm role with such an adventurous interest! Did they really think she was going to paraglide out of their office building?

The article is based on interview experiences shared by several women in PR and Communications and while there are organisations and agencies that are gender agnostic in their interview process and selection, sadly the experiences in my article appear to be the norm than the exception.

 Melissa Arulappan, is a senior corporate communications professional and founder member, Global Women in PR (GWPR), India Chapter.

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