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I am a woman currently on the market for tenure-track positions. I will not disclose my department since I think this is not relevant, and I am about to describe a particular department in detail.

I have a couple of interviews for the tenure-track positions, and while all of them are from schools that I would happily be at, one interview is from my dream school (research fit, compatibility with colleagues, location, and familiarity are all important factors in my job search).

While doing my research on this school, I made the unfortunate mistake of reading the hiring policy of the university. The policy says that if there are no applicants of minority status (such as being a woman) on their interview shortlist, the hiring committee must go back to the applicant pool and find the best applicant of minority status and add her to the interview list, or justify in writing to the Dean why they did not find any minority candidates suitable.

Clearly the second option is tedious, and I believe that most hiring committee would rather throw in a minority candidate rather than trying to justify the lack thereof. I am the only minority candidate. Furthermore, this department has never hired any women through the proper channels. The only women they have (the percentage is in the low single digits) were all hired through spousal hires. This makes me strongly suspect that maybe I am the candidate that they begrudgingly added to the interview list to avoid the paperwork.

This knowledge is impacting me severely; even though I am preparing for my interview, I keep thinking that all of this is hopeless, and I wonder if it's already agreed on among the hiring committee that I will never be hired. I feel that I am wasting my time. And although I have never acknowledged that being a woman was a disadvantage, or even that I was subject to sexism up to this point of my career, this time, I know that the other white males who are interviewing are not having these worries, and I am intensely jealous.

How can I talk myself through this, and believe from my heart that I can actually get this position? I read a similar question on this site just now, and it seems that unless I believe that I can get this position, often the defeatist attitude will show during the interview and become self-fulfilling. It really is my dream job and I want this job more than anything else.

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    See also the existing post on the imposter syndrome. – dmckee Dec 4 '16 at 19:12
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Comments can't be moved to chat more than once, only deleted from here on out.) – ff524 Dec 4 '16 at 21:24
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    The majority of the people involved in evaluating your interview are not involved in shortlisting. The hiring process is incredibly random. Last interview process I observed, there were 4 candidates, and for each candidate there were people who thought it was obvious that that candidate was the best. At worst, you're getting high-quality practice with the interview process. – Joel Dec 5 '16 at 15:40
  • You're probably applying in a STEM department. If it's mathematics, too bad the Association for Women in Mathematics (sites.google.com/site/awmmath/home) doesn't have a hot line with someone at the other end to ease your anxiety. Just wow them. Good luck. – Ethan Bolker Dec 6 '16 at 23:49
  • Just a small anecdote: Where I work, a candidate was mistakenly invited to interview rounds. The candidate knew this as he was addressed with the wrong name in the invitation letter. After the interview he revealed that his name was in fact not xxx but yyy. He got the job. – Underdetermined Dec 8 '16 at 7:26

13 Answers 13

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There are two things worth keeping in mind. First, while it might be the case that the committee is "forced" to interview a female candidate, it might not. You have no actual evidence in either case, and though it's tempting to assume the worst, there's no reason to, and there's absolutely nothing to gain by thinking the search committee doesn't want you there. So: spend your mental energy working on your talk, your research plans, etc.

Second, even if it is the case that the committee wouldn't be interviewing you if left to itself, the interview is in many respects a "blank slate" -- an opportunity for candidates to impress potential colleagues beyond what's evident on paper, and (of course) for candidates to fall flat and perform terribly. I've been on enough search committees to assure you that several of your fellow interviewees will do terribly, and that conversely it is not uncommon for committee members to say "I wasn't really in favor of bringing X to campus, but now having interacted with him/her, I'm glad we did."

This is all, I suppose, a long-winded way of saying "worry less, and always do your best!"

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    I agree with this. Even though I'm still in the early-career stage, I've seen plenty of searches that ended up with a completely different consensus than what everyone expected going in. The choice seemed obvious on paper, and then seemed obvious a different way after the campus visits. Let your enthusiasm shine and wow them. :) – trikeprof Dec 4 '16 at 4:31
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    @trikeprof can I ask just what has to happen in the interview for such a change of consensus to happen? Is that common? – Anna B Dec 4 '16 at 4:54
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    Not sure how common it is, but it's never impossible. Someone coming across as likable on paper, but not making a good impression in person. An application seeming only borderline, but then the person clicking extremely well with the department. Well-written writing samples and really poor presentation skills. Thoughtful research statement in advance but then no evidence of having actually read up on the department/school. Applications are such a limited way of getting a sense of a person...which is why at the tenure-track level campus visits are so crucial to the hiring process. :) – trikeprof Dec 4 '16 at 5:06
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    I've sat on hiring committees where the leading candidate after the last round of on-paper sorting was judged as exceedingly disagreeable in the phone interview round and ones where the leading candidate after the phone interview struggled in person while the runner-up shone in the classroom. It happens. And there is an element of "fit into the culture of the department" as well as search for raw talent. Of course no one gets to the on-campus interview unless they are judged as meeting the basic requirements. – dmckee Dec 4 '16 at 20:19
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    @AnnaB: In some departments different sets of people are responsible for choosing which candidates are interviewed, and which of the interviewees is hired. For example, in my department a small committee chooses the short list, but the entire department (modulo restrictions on rank) votes on which of the short list candidates to hire. And it's quite easy for an entire department to reach a different consensus from a committee. – Mark Meckes Dec 5 '16 at 17:29
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The simple answer is: who cares? Whether you were invited beause they want to interview you, or because they had to invite a <minority>, you have your foot in the door AND it is a place you want to work. So get prepared as best you can, because YOU want this!

Do note that women have this annoying tendency to say: "Oh dear, I am only 80% qualified for this position, I'd better not apply/not oversell myself/ask for what I want." I know; been there, done that. Men, on the other hand, often have this "Hey, I'm at least 25% qualified for the position, and I'm great, so here I go, you folks need me!"-attitude.

I understand that you don't want to be the token <minority>, but it won't be better until there are at least three <minority>s until the diversity factors kick in. So it is your job to give the best interview of your life. Study all the details of the institution, have a good idea of what you plan to research, find out as much as you can, and go into the interview with a smile and "Yes, I can!" on your mind. Good luck!

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    +1 Rankings can be reversed by interviews. So, even if you were the "token" of the invitation (which you shouldn't assume), you may end up the star of the interview. Don't overthink it, and give your best. – Captain Emacs Dec 5 '16 at 10:24
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    This is absolutely a great answer. At the end of the day it really makes no difference if you were the minority pick or not. You put your best foot forward either way. – David says Reinstate Monica Dec 6 '16 at 16:24
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    "Who cares?" Perhaps the OP has good reason to care. Time is limited. Everything has a cost. If she goes to this interview, she may have to cancel that interview. – emory Dec 6 '16 at 18:22
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My best translation of this program is, "We feel we might not be giving minority candidates enough of a shot." Apparently, you're a minority candidate who they want to give a shot. That's all you need to know about this program and why you wound up in an interview. If they didn't feel you were worth giving a shot, they would have just rejected you because, really, it's less tedious to reject you in writing to the dean, than to first interview you, then explain in all the more detail to everyone why you were not worth hiring.

This is convenient for you, because you estimate yourself to be very qualified for this position. So you should convey this to them in the interview, and they are inviting you to convey this to them.

Everything is working out exactly as intended. You are a minority candidate who deserves to interview; you are interviewing. If you are interviewing because of the program, then the program worked. If you are interviewing regardless, then the program was an unneeded check. It may even be well on its way to obsolescence, thanks to qualified candidates like you.

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    Women are not "minority candidates", they are in fact a majority of the population. It would be more correct to refer to them as an "underrepresented gender" or (which would be my preferred option) simply as "women". – Dan Romik Dec 4 '16 at 15:58
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    They are certainly a(n underrepresented) minority in most STEM fields, in practice. But I think we all agree on the reality of the phenomenon being addressed, even if we would choose different words. (It appears the OP is conveying the language used by the department in question.) – Greg Martin Dec 4 '16 at 20:33
  • @DanRomik Greg is right that I'm following the verbiage of the program. I almost always refer to women as "women", "people", "Lisa", etc. but often resort to "underrepresented gender" when discussing the underrepresentation of their gender. I wouldn't prefer "minority candidate" because of the ambiguity of "minority" in being pedantic, but "in the minority of candidates" is perfectly reasonable. – user18072 Dec 6 '16 at 14:44
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In addition to the other good answers, let me object to one of your assumptions. My experience is that interviewing a tenure-track appointment is usually expensive and time consuming, and would be far more of an annoyance than simply giving the dean a reason why you might not be qualified. This usually involves paying airfare, driving to and from airports, driving around town, tying up an entire day in the department's life, breakfast lunch and dinner, cajoling people to go to your job talk, etc. Meanwhile, the dean is probably not going to seriously push back on the committee's recommendations.

You can justify not interviewing someone to the dean in just a sentence or so. E.g. "this person didn't have the expected number of publications at this point of their career" or "this person replicates an area of expertise we already have in the department".

Also, take heart that your under-represented status can give you an advantage. I know for certain that my previous department weighed representation as a significant attribute of prospective hires. They wouldn't hire someone they thought couldn't live up to the normal workload expectations, but if there were two otherwise equal candidates the under-represented individual would be the clear choice.

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Gender equality in academia (and everywhere else) is built one job interview at a time, one hire at a time, one painful soul-searching Academia Stack Exchange discussion at a time. It is an edifice with millions of little bricks, still very incomplete and growing every day, and I feel that your situation is just one of those bricks.

The best I can offer by way of encouragement is to say that you owe it to future generations of women (who by the way are also in your debt for asking this extremely insightful and relevant question, a link to which I intend to forward to my dean and several other people at my department and campus) to do your best to overcome your doubts, go to that interview and perform at the very top of your abilities. You seem to know intellectually that you are just as qualified for the position as anyone else but are looking for ways to also "believe it from the heart" when a small but critical piece of evidence has planted doubts there. It is truly unfair that you were made to feel this way, but the best and perhaps only solution is to soldier on and interview precisely as if you are interviewing on a level playing field with all the other candidates, which for all we know you may very well be.

Think about it this way: by succeeding you would be taking your new dream employer and all of us in academia one more step on the way to making such hiring policies redundant so that future women candidates don't have to agonize in this way about their next job interview - a small step for a woman and a giant step for womankind (and mankind). Isn't that something worth making an effort for?

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    By the way, I would be very interested to hear your Dean's response (if at all). This kind of affirmative action exists in my institution too, and although I have never inquired about it, I wonder if I should. At present, I do not see an alternative to this policy, however. – Sana Dec 5 '16 at 7:38
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First of all, let me reassure you that it is completely understandable for you to feel this way, even when you know that you are totally qualified for this position. You might already know the term "impostor phenomenon", the existence of which is a testament to the fact that many women (whom you would also recognize as successful and qualified) nevertheless have strong self-doubts about their worthiness.

I think it's also worth explicitly noting that you feeling this way is not your fault! Any of us would be susceptible to similar feelings, if we had been faced with a lifetime of suggestions that we are somehow not welcome in a field simply because of an irrelevant trait such as gender. Even if the worst were true, the fault would lie with the department and its hiring committee, not with you. Bias against women means that people evaluate women as less qualified, even when they are equally or more qualified than other applicants; but those evaluations are erroneous, and this department's policy is one attempt to compensate for that bias. (And really, if it were the case that this department can never bring itself to hire women due to the biases of its members—can it really be a dream job? They need to convince you that they live up to your standards of collegiality, after all.)

I know there is no magic solution. But, to suggest an ideal strategy to at least orient toward: remember that other people's choices are out of your control, whether those choices are fair or not. You have been invited to demonstrate your strengths and potential to this department, and you can do that regardless of what they end up deciding. And even though job searches are extremely stressful and personal, remember that no hiring decision is a statement about your worth as a person (or as an academic): you have worked hard, learned, grown, and accomplished so much during your education, and your worth is unconditional.

I hope it's helpful for me to list a few articles that talk about issues like this, and do actually have some tips for people in your situation:

  • K. Kaplan, Unmasking the impostor, Nature 459 (2009), 468–469.
  • A. Gheaus, Three cheers for the token woman, Social Science Research Network, March 5, 2013.
  • P. R. Clance and S. Imes, The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice 15 (1978), no. 3, 241–247.
  • https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/gendered-conference-campaign/
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Comments can't be moved to chat more than once. So future contributions to the ongoing discussion that are posted as comments, can only be deleted instead.) – ff524 Dec 4 '16 at 20:26
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Lots of great answers here already about why you shouldn't let this worry you. Let me add one more thing that may help address the actual question - how do you stop worrying?

Your worst case scenario is that they won't seriously consider you.

If that is the case, you are still getting the best possible practice for interviews at places that will consider you. I've heard lots of stories of people approaching an interview as practice and getting the job.

So (particularly if you are an impostor syndrome case), I bet you can treat this as practice, but still do incredibly good preparation on your presentation. Focus on getting the best possible practice for other interviews.


In all honesty however, in todays academic environment, there are many qualified women applying for jobs. In my experience, as a general rule, any of the top 10% of applicants has a legitimate chance at the job, and the process of choosing one over another is random. Odds are there were around 200 applicants. They probably had a pool of 20 or so people from which some random detail led to one being picked over another. Perhaps the random detail that got you picked was being female. Someone else may have gotten picked because their webpage mentions scuba diving and so someone on the committee read their application a little closer than the others and liked it.


So my point for the rational part of you is "you've got as good a shot as anyone else". My point for the impostor syndrome part of you is "at worst, you're practicing for your other interviews."

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If you can't stop thinking that expectations are set too low for you, turn that thought around and focus on the large margin by which you can beat those expectations - probably by a wider margin than other candidates, if the expectations really are lower. No matter how objective people try to make their assessments, they usually wind up emotionally remembering the delta between expectations and actual performance (especially when they're evaluating subjectively!).

Then turn that view of an opportunity into motivation to prepare to do your best.

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I've done a lot of interviews, both as a candidate, and as an interviewer in universities. You are there only because they think you can do it. It's just too much effort to drag people in otherwise. At an interview you can sell yourself, in a way that no cv can match.

In my experience we do interviews for two reasons -

  1. To see if we can live with you. We've dropped very able well published candidates because we could not imagine working with them.
  2. To see if they can think - we often throw candidates hard questions to see if they can think on their feet, and to get some idea of their problem solving style (which matters a lot in my area)

I would say, go for it, and do not undervalue yourself. Good luck!

  • The only exception to this I'd say is that I've known a few schools to invite former students to get them "real" interview experience, despite there being no expectation of then getting it. Though one time, a guy ended up getting it because the others all bailed after getting jobs elsewhere. – user0721090601 Dec 6 '16 at 10:53
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So you read their hiring policies, and suddenly you think you are not qualified for this job? Why would you think that? Their hiring policies have nothing, nothing at all to do with your ability to do the job.

Of course if you think your situation is hopeless then it is hopeless - you are your own worst enemy, and if you go to an interview with the assumption it is hopeless, you don't have a chance.

It's time to adjust your attitude. Take a big sheet of paper. On the left side, you write down all the positives and why you should get the job. The right side, you just leave empty. And every morning after you get up and every evening before you go to bed you take that list, you say loud "This is why I will get the job, and why I deserve it", and then you read the list aloud.

Wish you success for your interview. You can do it. You will do it.

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I would say to be cautious. Because even if it is your dream job, you still need to be able to successfully work there and get tenure. With how they have treated women in the past (only spousal hires) it may be challenging to near impossible to 1) get along in the department, 2) get the good classes/research opportunities, and 3) not be stuck with all the service that the rest of the professors don't want on their plate. If this is indeed your dream job AND you have a positive feeling about "getting along" with these colleagues, I would ask lots of questions about course load and service obligations during the on campus. And then if you get an offer to have all of that written in your offer letter.

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Other answers do indeed convey "what people think". And, yes, the question reflects an ugly reality of academic and other contexts where the "looking like a baseball player" fallacy sadly dominates.

In the world that we apparently inhabit, probably not the best of all possible, based on several decades of both observation and attempts to intervene to make things better/fairer, ... I'd recommend a sort of aggressively hyper-Darwinist viewpoint, namely, that if you can get a job you have earned it.

I have to say that (in my STEM field, mathematics) there are many accidental or subliminal misogynists ("she doesn't look like a mathematician"...) but/and some of the worst of them are willing to bend to various "equal-opportunity" laws, if only for funding or avoiding hassles.

Sure, even after tenure, people (of many sorts) will receive endless (believe me...) "micro-aggressions" from central administration, passed on to Deans, passed on to dept chairs, ... not to mention self-aggrandizing types... so the problem does not end.

For a flashy ending to this answer: if "looking like a mathematician" means "looking like a socially awkward, physically clumsy, late-pubescent northwestern-european or north-east-european boy", well, gosh, yeah, I guess that many of us don't "pass". I'd note that the obvious objections to this sort of caricature are ... in principle... justified, but, in practice, are absolutely not.

  • Paul, the question doesn't mention anything about math or STEM... – Dan Romik Dec 6 '16 at 4:16
  • @DanRomik, indeed, the question doesn't mention a specific field, but/and surely most of us can only talk (with any substance) about our direct experience in a specific field, ... – paul garrett Dec 6 '16 at 13:16
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There is a lot of sexism and racism in academia, but still less than in other types of workplaces. Generally, people will accept you as one of theirs if you can prove to them that you can do the same things just as well. University politics might influence them to interview you, but getting the position will be largely based on their perception of your capabilities as a researcher. You might be nervous during the interview, you might worry about various things like if your dress makes you look fat or the committee was forced to grant you an interview. But the hiring committee might have already interviewed a number of candidates and all they want to know is if they can offer you the position or not.

So, regardless of the reason you are there, the committee will look if you have a vision of what your research is, where is it headed and what is your potential as a researcher to impact your field and bring in grants. They are also interested in what are you ready to teach, if you have experience mentoring students and if you are the kind of person people can collaborate with. If the department you are applying to is a good fit in your opinion, you have won half of the battle.

There is, indeed, the possibility you mention that they just want a minority candidate who happens to be a woman. That is not as strongly related to your academic ability as you imply. When I was a student, my department hired a few assistant professors among which there was one woman. The gossip at the time was that the committee hired her over better applicants because they had to fulfill some gender equality requirement. Ten years later, she runs one of the strongest groups in the department and publishes over 10 papers per year, which, in my field, is quite an achievement.

You may have, as some others suggested, a bit of the imposter's syndrome. Now you may think your current research is not as good as that of your peers, but I think you should wait a little with your self-evaluation. As a young researchers I always thought that my research was trivial for various reasons. Sometimes it took me ages to understand something new, to learn a new technique, sometimes I would get my papers rejected, I would get trashed during my own talks, and all those little things kept adding to my insecurity. But, working with other young researchers who more or less stumble upon the same problems, I realized I wasn't all that bad. It's simply a tough job to do good research and, sometimes, being persistent is all you can do. This applies even more to job interviews. So just keep going at it until you get the position. Also realize that even the best male candidates will feel insecure, each for his own reasons. And there will be a guy half as smart as you who thinks he's a genius. Don't let him get your job.

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