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Employers Don't Like to Hire Intelligent Women

A new study found that high-achieving women were less likely to get called back for a job interview than high-achieving men—as well as only moderately-achieving women.
Photo by VegterFoto via Stocksy.

In one particularly emotional episode of the TV drama This Is Us, Sterling K. Brown’s character Randall offers his foster daughter, Deja (played by Lyric Ross), some insight into how he came to be so successful. “Working hard,” he tells her, “is what gets you the big house and the fancy car.”

It’s certainly something many of us have heard at one point or another. But according to a new study in American Sociological Review, working hard may actually yield more benefits for men than women. After conducting two related experiments, Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, found that women who did really well in college were less likely to get called back for a job interview than men who did really well and women who did moderately well.


Interested in exploring whether women’s academic success translated at all to the labor market, Quadlin first conducted an audit study: She submitted 2,106 fake job applications that manipulated the applicants’ GPA, gender, and college major to open entry-level positions. The male applicants, she discovered, were called back at approximately the same rate, regardless of whether they were A students or C students. But that was not the case for female applicants.

In fact, she writes, “high-achieving men were called back nearly twice as often as their female counterparts. In sheer percentage terms, the highest-achieving women were called back even less often than the lowest-achieving men, although the point estimates for these groups are not statistically different.”

Interestingly, the disparity was most notable among math majors: High-achieving men were three times more likely to get a call back than high-achieving women. “In other words,” Quadlin notes, “when women demonstrate achievement in the precise field where they are expected to be least competent, they may be particularly likely to be penalized in hiring.”

In order to understand why women who did so well in college weren’t getting those important call-backs for job interviews, Quadlin conducted a second experiment surveying 261 hiring managers. She asked them to evaluate fictional resumes of applicants based on competence, likeability, and other factors, and report overall impressions. From this data, she determined that employers still survey potential workers based on presumed gender stereotypes.


“Men are more likely to be called back if they are perceived as competent and committed to their jobs—traits that are typically ascribed to the ‘ideal worker,’” Quadlin writes. “Women, however, are more likely to be called back if they are perceived as likeable—an assessment that is more or less irrelevant to men’s employment outcomes. The qualitative data reveal that while moderate-achieving women are often viewed as likeable and socially skilled, employers are more skeptical about high-achieving women’s personalities.”

Quadlin’s research is just the latest to point out that bias is alive and well in hiring practices. In one study, for example, researchers found that after a number of symphony orchestras switched to blind audition tests—meaning, musicians performed behind a screen, thus concealing their gender from the musical director doing the hiring—the rate of hire of female musicians increased by approximately 25 percent between 1970 and 1996. A 2003 study found that employers were more likely to call back applicants with white-sounding names over those with black-sounding ones, regardless of how qualified the applicants appeared on their resumes.

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In fact, Quadlin admits in her study that high-achieving women of color may be held “to an even stricter standard” by employers, as her studies used fictional names that intentionally left race and ethnicity ambiguous, and suggests future research analyze how academic performance impacts people from different racial groups.

Although women have made great strides in higher education and the workplace over the last few decades, she writes, her research suggests that, at least from the entry-level job market’s perspective, there may be such a thing as being too smart.