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Are We Using Hiring Interviews to Confirm or to Learn?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
June 7, 2021

As we continue to recover from the aftermath of the pandemic, bringing women back into the workforce is going to be a key component. The pandemic placed extraordinary caregiving burdens on families, and the data is showing that nearly 2 million women dropped out of the United States labor force. Providing opportunities to return for those who have taken a break from the paid workforce are at an all-time high. Now is the time for government organizations to embrace “returnship” programs and revisit recruitment and hiring processes that may be outdated. It’s also an opportunity to remember that the career progression experience is different for women. If organizations or individuals truly want to support their advancement, a good place to start is by understanding what it is that women are actually experiencing.

It Begins with the Interview Process

The commitment to hiring and advancing women needs to go beyond just words. While agencies may say they support the advancement of women, statistics show that leadership continues to be largely comprised of men. While research shows that women start their careers just as ambitious as their male peers, it doesn’t take long before many start to scale back their career goals. And, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t from a lack confidence or that they’re risk averse.

Research of top women executives shows that women are dissatisfied and frustrated with how the interview processes are managed. This is particularly the case when a woman is asked to apply for a position but doesn’t get the job. The impression women often have is that they were asked to apply just because they are a woman and the hiring committee wanted to be able to say that they had interviewed a woman—not because they were actually serious about hiring her.

Recent research conducted with women leaders in government asked what challenges these women experienced in their career progression. Surprisingly, many women called out difficulties with the interview process. One research participant shared, “The interview process was the hardest for me. Everyone in management knew I could do the job, but the interview process held me back.” Another woman commented, “I don’t like how everything is based on your interview. Your proven work history/behavior means nothing. I don’t interview well, and I’m penalized for it.” And finally, “Interviews always feel like they already have their person picked out.” Whether or not that’s the case—it’s the impression that women have.

This matters because women place a greater weight than men on the fairness of the recruitment and selection process. Being treated fairly is interpreted by women managers as a signal that they belong and are considered a part of the leadership community. As a result, women’s perception of the fairness of an organization’s recruitment and promotion process directly impacts their willingness to apply or whether they will put themselves through a similar process again.

Using Interviews to Learn, Not Just Confirm      

Historically, the hiring process has relied on metrics that have no relation to success in a certain position. Granted, there are benefits of asking for a certain number of years of experience or holding a certain college degree—one being that we confirm that we will hire someone who has already done what is needed or has been exposed to certain concepts. But we fail to acknowledge the downsides of relying on such metrics to determine a candidate’s capacity, one of which is that we remain stuck in repeating what’s already been done, and often the way it’s been done.

If an organization truly wants to support women transitioning back into the workforce, use the interview process as a chance to learn what potential candidates bring to your team, including creativity, problem-solving skills or independent judgment. These skills will be particularly useful as government organizations continue to be challenged to innovate.

Instead of treating the interview process as a tool to reinforce the status quo, consider the following:

  • Rather than focusing on whether a candidate has previously done, “X, Y or Z,” ask how a candidate would approach doing, “X, Y or Z.” The answer could provide insight on innovative solutions that hadn’t previously been considered.
  • Rarely does a team have all the skill sets needed to address a new problem. With that in mind, ask candidates how they would address a situation when it’s clear that there is either a skill or responsibility gap on the team. This could indicate whether or not the person will be a team-player.
  • Explore what a candidate has considered to be meaningful on projects that they have worked on. Consider asking, “What does that particular success say about what matters do you?”

Embracing the Chance to Learn

Too often, leaders screen out perfectly good candidates because they approach the interview process as time-consuming and annoying. Instead of becoming frustrated, these conversations should be seen as an opportunity to learn more about a candidate’s relevant skills and experiences. If an organization truly values diversity in the talent pipeline, now is the time to embrace these opportunities to hire and advance skilled and creative women.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at [email protected] Townsend.Consulting. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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