The real reasons behind the gender gap in job applications

Gender application gap

We’ve all heard (and repeated!) this wee gem: “Women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. Men apply if they’re 60% qualified”. Google it, and the 916,000 results indicate how influential a single stat is in our understanding of gender and careers. 

We wince every time someone opens their mouth to repeat it.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Stats hold a special power in our brains – they can convey powerful messages about our world. Like this one from early 2023: Women CEOs finally outnumber CEOs named John. It paints a very powerful and very problematic picture of the status quo. Unfortunately, it’s also true.

But not all stats are created equal. For example, do you know the source about women not applying for jobs? It came from an internal Hewlett-Packard report. Yup. One of the most influential one-liners shaping the debate around the gender leadership gap could simply have been a comment from an out-of-touch exec

Anecdata can be a dangerous weapon.

But do we apply for jobs at the same rate as men?

Many studies show statistical differences between the rates at which men and women apply for jobs. Many conclude that the gap is far smaller than our old mate at HP led us to believe. Most conclude that it does exist.

Our conclusion? We’re asking the wrong question. Knowing that there is an application gap is far less important than understanding why it endures. That’s where stats fall short. At Powrsuit, we’re in the fortunate position to speak with many women who are tossing up their next move. This qualitative research gives us deep insight into the factors they grapple with before applying for a job. Here’s a selection of what we’ve heard:

  • I don’t think I can juggle family responsibilities and a big job
  • I might have kids in the next few years. Is it fair to take a job knowing I’ll take a big break soon?
  • My manager told me not to apply because I don’t have the right skills or experience
  • If there’s no diversity in their leadership team, it’s a hard no
  • I can’t rely on my ex for child support, so I have to prioritise stability
  • I’m in my fifties, and I know I’ll face bias, so I have to protect my emotional well-being
  • No one asked me to apply, so I assumed they didn’t want me to

None of these women were weighing up their qualifications. At least half of the reasons are gendered. We figure only one of them is a legitimate reason – and sadly, it stems from women shouldering most of the childcare and household burden

So, one thing is clear: Women are talking themselves out of career opportunities. Not because we underestimate our value and readiness but because we’re calculating the odds of success and coming up short. We’re not applying for jobs when we perceive our application as a waste of time.

Flawed logic?

Recently, we’ve covered the fascinating causes of procrastination. Most of them stem from deep-rooted (and misguided) attempts at self-preservation. The problem is that ‘self-preservation’ can skew very close to self-sabotage.

We are all products of social and cultural forces. These invisible forces can mess with our decision-making process. Take a recent podcast that nearly made Nat spit out her tea: A successful woman talked about a job she secured via her professional network. Instead of celebrating the power of this valuable career-enhancing tool, she scolded herself for ‘cheating’ to get ahead. 

Flawed logic leads us to automatically assume a promotion means less time with family or that systemic bias means it’s not worth trying. Those things may both be true, but they also may not. Is it time to turn our fear of failure into embracing the power of positivity? To flip our automatic ‘no’ into a strategic yes?

The one question we need to ask ourselves

The other day, a Powrsuiter talked us through her decision to apply for a promotion: she realised if she didn’t, her mediocre colleague would get the job. 

Here’s another fun stat: the average American thinks they’re smarter than the average American. Translation: Plenty of people enthusiastically put their hands up because they overestimate their abilities. Often, these are the people who get the job. We wouldn’t be writing articles about managing your manager if they were always ‘the best person for it’. 

When you talk yourself out of applying, you’ve given other, less qualified people a clear path to success. The success that you deserve. Luckily, there’s a very simple way to stop your negative self-talk in its tracks. In our experience, this one question has caused almost every hesitant Powrsuiter to cut the excuses and go for the job:

If not you, then who?

30 second action:

The next time you hear a stat that ‘explains’ women’s behaviour at work and home, don’t repeat it until you’ve found the source.

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