The Biggest Lie We Are Told, Believe & Often Spread About Women in Work 

 April 18, 2023

By  Jane Frankland

Most people have heard and most likely shared, the following quote…

Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the required qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report, and is often quoted in webinars, panels, talks, blogs, and books, including Lean In and The Confidence Code. It’s usually raised as evidence that women need more confidence.

However, here’s the thing….

No one has ever seen the report and there’s no hard evidence regarding this metric!

Stories are not studies.

It was bestselling author Tara Sophia Mohr who decided to investigate this further. Being sceptical of the report, she surveyed 1,000 professionals, both men and women, predominantly from the USA, and released her findings in 2014. With a list of stock answers, she asked:

‘If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, why didn’t you apply?’

Her findings confirmed what she’d suspected all along: there was little difference between genders.

She discovered that the barrier to applying was NOT a lack of confidence. Instead, the most common reason for men and women not applying for a job was because they didn’t think they’d meet the qualifications and didn’t want to waste their time and energy applying.

Please re-read that last sentence.

What became apparent from Tara’s survey (and one I replicated when I wrote IN Security) was that professionals were being held back on account of a mistaken perception about the hiring process. As Tara reports, the respondents thought that the qualifications were set, and that they needed the qualifications not to do the job well, but to be hired.

Whilst HP’s internal report is slightly misleading, it shines a light on the problem around hiring, and a heavier reliance on qualifications by more women than men, which no one can deny. When women know that others are applying for jobs even if they don’t meet the specified criteria, it highlights that not everyone is playing by the rules and gives women permission to do the same.

And this can be hard for women, as many have been raised since childhood to be compliant and conform to societal gender norms. From an early age, many girls have been taught to follow the rules and conform to the “good girl” stereotype who behaves, is modest, considerate, selfless, wants for nothing, and is content in a supportive, largely invisible role. Boys, on the other hand, have been typically encouraged to take more risks or challenge the status quo. This socialisation has created a culture where women are more likely to self-regulate and follow the existing rules, even if those rules are unjust. 🙁

So, coming back to qualifications, although they’ve historically been a woman’s way in to the workplace, and a way of demonstrating that she’s worthy of a placement and can do the job just as well as any man, it’s interesting to note that typically young women see the workplace as orderly and meritocratic – something that it’s not – and often older women, who know that it’s not, still comply with this regime in order to get on!

Unfortunately, too, if women know that they need more qualifications in order to be hired, and experience gender bias in their workplaces, it further promotes the issue of confidence over competence and keeps women stuck in a self-doubt mode and from applying for jobs for where they believe they don’t meet the qualifications.

Qualifications are a starting point, not a finishing line.

The solution is simple: we must stop focusing on qualifications, and instead focus on potential, skills and experience including transferable skills – like communication, problem solving, teamwork and creativity.

We must do away with resumes as they rely on historical data (past experience) and are the worst predictors of a person’s ability to succeed in a role. To evaluate if someone has the ability to perform successfully in a role and see a 70% increase in women hired for STEM jobs, you need to use blind/ anonymous hiring and predictive assessments (e.g. cognitive ability tests plus work sample tests and structured interviews). These remove unconscious bias as the more we know about someone the more biased decisions we unknowingly make.

Women must stop hearing the myth – that they don’t apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the job application criteria as the likelihood of this stereothreat becoming embedded as a belief and a self fulling prophecy is high. It influences a woman’s expectations of themselves.

I gave an example of this in IN Security – where researchers found that female students who checked the gender box before taking their AP calculus exam, as students usually do, did worse than students who checked the box after.

“A girl who hears that “girls are bad at mathematics” can internalise that message, believe she’s bad at maths, and do worse at maths because of it.”

Story time…

Before I end, I’m going to tell you a story about a hiring process I came across recently in cybersecurity (penetration testing) where men applicants beat women applicants due to the interpretation of the testing rules.

Here’s what the academy manager discovered and told me,

“At the start of the online selection process, each applicant was told they’d need to answer a series of questions and have their cameras on during the process. As they began their online test, it became apparent that some of them knew the answers straight away, while others struggled to answer. Whenever a man applicant was unsure of an answer most of the time, he’d quickly search for it on his phone or laptop. However, most, if not all of the women applicants, seemed to believe that they couldn’t do this even though no one had told them they couldn’t. So, when they couldn’t answer a question, they left it blank and moved on to the next question.

To no one’s surprise, women applicants scored lower than men applicants. By the end of the selection process, the hiring manager found that those who’d supplemented their knowledge with online resources to get the answers – mostly men applicants – ended up being offered a position on the cybersecurity academy with the company while those who hadn’t were unsuccessful.”

What this example highlights, is not that men applicants were more competant or more naturally resourceful than women applicants. Rather, that the women applicants didn’t understand the testing process – that they could look up answers online, and as they put it “cheat”, AND that the academy manager was unaware that this gender based scenario may happen. As a result, he hadn’t effectively communicated the testing rules.

Ultimately this cost many women applicants an opportunity to be offered a position on the cybersecurity academy, and for the employer to miss out on the benefits of gender diversity in their cybersecurity team.

It also shows us how gender norms are still playing out in the workplace; women are often reluctant to challenge the status quo, while men are more likely to do so.

To end…

The fact is, women are capable and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be getting jobs and advancing in male dominated industries. In order to increase their chances, we must stop believing and spreading the myth that women don’t apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the criteria and start addressing the problem. We need to educate ourselves about how qualifications and the hiring process works, convey the rules as leaders/ hiring managers during job application processes, and understand that the quote, “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the required qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them” is just a myth.

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Jane frankland


Jane Frankland is a cybersecurity market influencer, award-winning entrepreneur, consultant and speaker. She is the Founder of KnewStart and the IN Security Movement. Having held executive positions within her own companies and several large PLCs, she now provides agile, forward thinking organisations with strategic business solutions. Jane works with leaders of all levels and supports women in male dominated industries like cybersecurity and tech. Her book, IN Security: Why a failure to attract and retain women in cybersecurity is making us all less safe' is a best-seller.


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