Back in 2013, in her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg mentioned a Hewlett Packard report that showed that women only apply for jobs if they think they meet 100% of the qualifications, while men apply if they meet only 60% of the qualifications.
The common conclusion drawn from this was that male job seekers are more confident than their female counterparts. If women are to be hired more often into leadership roles, they need to have more self-confidence.
Subsequent research has shown that it's actually more complicated. It turns out that it's less about how confident women should be in themselves, and more about how confident they should be in the job description.
What we're learning about this turns out to be very helpful for women in the job market (and also for men).
Tara Mohr is an expert on women's leadership. She was skeptical of the explanation that male job seekers are more self-confident, so she conducted her own research. She presented her findings in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article.
Mohr asked men and women why they would decide not to apply for a job for which they don't meet all of the qualifications. What she found was that lack of self-confidence was the least-cited reason all people gave for not applying.
By far the most common reason they gave — again, both men and women — was that they didn't think they would be hired and didn't want to waste their time and energy.
One answer, however, did differentiate the women from the men. The great majority of reasons women gave for not applying — 78% — were based on the assumption that the posted qualifications that were ruling them out were "real" and accurately reflected the hiring process.
In other words, what was holding them back was a mistaken perception about the hiring process.
Research has shown that young girls are encouraged to be rule followers, while young boys are encouraged to be rule testers. And it's often been noted that in work situations women are more likely to be hired on the basis of qualifications, while men are more likely to be hired on the basis of "potential."
It's no wonder then if women have learned that they can benefit from a strategy of being diligent about following the rules, that this can help them become visible and successful — both as job seekers and as workers.
One of Mohr's conclusions was that this strategy may not be enough. It could be that what really counts for women is getting good at building strong networks and advocating for themselves, and putting rule-following in the back seat — just as the men do.
All job seekers, but especially women, can benefit from this insight by following two strategies in their searches.
Not all qualifications are equal — you need to identify the most important ones. It’s all about fit. If you meet 60%-70%, you can be successful — but which 60%-70%? The answer to that will depend on what you learn about the company and the role, possibly well beyond what's expressed in the posting.
All your research should be putting you in front of people who can help you. Make this part of your networking. Find someone at the company who will look at your resume and cover letter and give you advice. Show them the posted requisition and your hypothetical requisition. Are you missing anything? If you did a good job, they may feel confident to pass your resume along internally.