Google Expects Different Answers From Men and Women on a Question Used to Predict Job Success

Photo: Robert Daly

Google is well known for its confounding interview questions: How would you explain a database to your 8-year-old nephew? How many golf balls can fit in a school bus? Why are manholes round? What if — and, fine, it’s not exactly the likeliest scenario but what if — you were somehow shrunk to the size of a nickel and then tossed into a blender and had only 60 seconds to escape?

If it seems a tad nebulous to you what, exactly, these questions could possibly tell a hiring manager about a prospective employee’s potential, well, it seems Google’s Laszlo Bock would agree. In an interview this week on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Bock — whose official title is senior vice president of people operations; he’s the head of human resources, essentially — told host Shankar Vedantam that the company’s days of brainteasers like these are behind them. But the HR reps still have a few tricky questions up their sleeves.

Here’s one of their new ones: “On a scale of one to five, rate yourself as a software engineer.” Seems relatively straightforward, right? Ah, and this is why you’ll never make it at Google. Bock’s team has identified some intriguing correlations in a job candidate’s answer and their eventual success at the company — but, crucially, there is a gender difference here. For a guy, the “correct” answer — that is, the “most predictive of success,” as Bock phrases it — is four. “And our hypothesis is, that’s because men tend to overestimate their capabilities, on average, [and] men tend to be less self-aware, on average, as [compared to] women,” Bock said. “And for a man to say four was a signal — not the only one, but a signal — that this guy’s a little more self-aware, maybe he realizes he has something to learn, and that was positively correlated with success here.”

So — a little humility is a desirable quality for the men who wish to work at Google. Good to know. But it was a slightly different story for the women applying to the tech giant. Let’s let Bock explain:

If you’re a woman, however, the score that was most predictive was a five out of five. And our hypothesis there was because there is so much societal pressure on women to be self-effacing and humble and hang back and be modest, and wait till they’re certain rather than raising their hand at the first opportunity like men, on average, do — that if a woman says she’s a five, first of all, she’s probably going to have higher EQ and social perceptiveness on average. And second — she’s gonna be amazing! And, indeed, that’s what we see.

An interesting hypothesis, to be sure — and chances are, of course, that the fact that Bock was willing to talk about this question in such detail likely means it’s no longer one they use in the hiring process. But let’s also take a minute to note the funny little fact that in this hypothetical, subjective, totally made-up work scenario, female applicants are held to higher standards than their male peers. There is evidence, incidentally, that this is a trend that continues once the hiring is done; just last week, Vedantam reported for All Things Considered that a new Wharton School study had found that women were held to higher ethical standards at work as compared to their male counterparts. How’s that for a brainteaser?