Coming down with a case of the jitters during a job interview is hardly surprising, but is anxiety experienced in these high-pressure settings greater for men or women?
A University of Guelph study found there was no difference between males and females when it came to self-reported and interviewer-rated anxiety. However, there was a gender divide when it came to interview performance – and males were affected more.
PhD candidate Amanda Feiler first started ruminating on the subject of interview anxiety while working on her master's thesis, which was around the time of the recession. She recalled thinking of those who would be losing their jobs and the pressures they'd be facing in subsequent interviews.
"One of the big questions that we had with my thesis was in terms of gender differences with interview anxiety," Ms. Feiler, 27, said in a phone interview. "Do men experience more anxiety than women, or is it vice versa? And is the effect worse for men than it is for women?"
As it turns out, it's a bit of both, according to a study co-authored by Ms. Feiler and Deborah Powell, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Guelph.
Researchers recruited 125 participants – 43 males and 82 females – aged between 18 and 22 who were undergraduate co-op students.
As part of their course credit, they were required to take part in mock interviews for a position within one of 15 organizations where they were interested in submitting applications, and were assigned an interviewer employed by the campus career centre.
The interviews were recorded and included both unstructured and semi-structured behavioural questions, starting from the general "tell me a little about yourself"-type queries to the more specific, such as how they resolved a situation with an angry customer.
Both the interviewers and interviewees were asked to rate the anxiety levels of candidates.
"What we actually found is that there were no gender differences between men and women in terms of their self-reported and interviewer-reported anxiety, but that men suffered greater impairments in terms of interview performance than anxious females did," Ms. Feiler said.
Dr. Powell said they originally wanted to see the correlation between how people rated their own anxiety and how interviewers rated their anxiety, in addition to how anxiety affected a candidate's performance.
"We suspect that people who appeared more anxious and also felt more anxious would get lower scores on the interview questions – and that was the case," she said. "So people who were more anxious didn't do as well in the interview. And that was the effect that was even stronger for men."
Researchers have suggested females tend to have significantly higher levels of anxiety compared to males on selection tests, such as cognitive ability tests, the authors wrote. Yet when it comes to the context of hiring, "anxiety may actually be more detrimental" to how a male performs, the authors wrote.
It's a concept known as the sex-linked anxiety coping theory: Anxiety levels of females may be less detrimental to how they perform on selection tests – such as interviews – because of their tendency to use coping strategies.
Guelph researchers wrote that, to their knowledge, their study is the first to apply the sex-linked anxiety coping theory to interview anxiety. However, they do acknowledge measures of coping strategies weren't obtained by their study participants.
"In general, we've found that women tend to do more of the problem focus, so they'll ask their friends to do mock interviews so they'll feel more prepared. And in general, men will tend not to think about the problem that's stressing them out," said Dr. Powell.
"We don't really know what the men and women did in this study, but that's one of our hypotheses of what might have gone on."
Both Ms. Feiler and Dr. Powell said there may also be the possibility of sex stereotyping where interviewers are expecting males to be more assertive and confident.
Dr. Powell said it's key for individuals to remember the interview process is a social interaction where interviewers will expect some anxiety, and that apprehension levels may not be as noticeable as candidates perceive them to be.
"Having genuine thoughts about the consequences – 'How am I doing? Am I doing okay?' – are quite distracting," she said.
"Trying to stay present and just thinking about: 'What did the interviewer ask me? What's the best answer I can come up with?' And just trying to stay focused on the task at hand would be helpful."