This Study About Employers’ Attitudes Toward Highly Qualified Women Will Infuriate You

I didn't get a lot of sleep last night, but nothing jolts you awake quite like the following: a recent study found that women with high grades have a harder time getting hired than men with high grades. Even worse, the study found women with moderate grades got hired at a better rate than women with high grades, suggesting women are in fact penalized for high achievement. Guess it's a good thing I never bothered doing the reading for my philosophy courses in college, huh.

The study, dubbed "The Mark of a Woman’s Record: Gender and Academic Performance in Hiring," was conducted by Natasha Quadlin, who teaches sociology at the Ohio State University, and Quadlin published her findings in the American Sociological Review earlier this month. To conduct her research, Quadlin sent out 2,106 false entry-level job applications from a (fake) mix of men and women that had a variety of GPAs and college majors. She found that both high and moderate-achieving men (i.e., men who got either mostly As in school or mostly Cs) were frequently called back by hiring managers. But high achieving women weren't called back nearly as frequently, with A and C-scoring men getting called back about twice as often as A-scoring women.

In fact, Quadlin found hiring managers were more likely to call in moderate-achieving women for interviews, likely because managers preferred to hire women who were "likable" (as opposed to "competent," as was prized in male applicants), and moderate-achieving women come off as more sociable.

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 wrote in the study, as reported by Broadly. “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.”

To make matters worse, Quadlin discovered that women who were high achieving in subjects typically dominated by men were punished even further for their success. Men who got both As and Cs in math, for instance, were three times as likely to be called in for interviews than women who got As in math. "[W]hen 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," Quadlin wrote.

She adds, "These findings suggest that achievement invokes gendered stereotypes that penalize women for having good grades, creating unequal returns to academic performance at labor market entry."

It's not much of a secret that there's gender bias in the workplace; previous studies have shown that gender-blind applications tend to result in more women hired, regardless of how high or low achieving they are. Women are also underrepresented in managerial positions, in part due to biases held against them by men in power. This is even truer when it comes to minority women, who are hired at even lower rates than white women — Quadlin didn't list race on her fake job applications, so it's unclear how that factor might have affected the study.

It's hard to see this as anything other than an indication that men are threatened by successful women, but it shouldn't stop women from trying to become leaders in the workplace — if anything, the more high-achieving women we have out there, the harder it will be for hiring managers to turn them away from jobs. And if not, then we'll have a crop of intelligent women ripe for kickstarting their own companies, which will be formidable forces, indeed.