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Being Traditional Can Help Job Search

Published: June 19, 2017

Psychology’s May Ling Halim knows being different can make a difference in a job search.

“We found that women were penalized for being atypical, like taking time off from school, more than men were,” said Halim, the author with New York University’s (NYU) Madeline Heilmann of a 2013 article in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology on “Sex bias in evaluating nontraditional job applicants: reactions to women and men’s interrupted college attendance.” Overall, she found, it was not a good thing for a job application to be nontraditional.

“I’m interested in the role of taking a nontraditional path in job applications,” said Halim, a member of the university since 2012. “Does gender play a role? The idea of looking at the difference made by claiming time off from college in a resume came from my experience in applying for business-related jobs as a psychology major at Stanford.”

Halim believes her research has important implications for women.

“This study demonstrated how gender stereotypes can impede women’s careers in ways that are subtle and not necessarily discernible but can have long-term consequences on their career outcomes,” she wrote. “We demonstrated how apparently similar ratings of men and women can have dramatically different effects on their evaluations. Thus, the findings suggest that those who have responsibility to root out gender bias in organizations should pay heed to these subtleties if they are to ensure fair treatment of women in the workplace.

“More generally, our findings highlighted a potential contradiction,” she added. “Research has suggested that the traits that foster the expansive behavioral repertoire emblematic of an effective leader are cognitive flexibility, adaptability, openness, a tolerance for ambiguity, creativity and risk propensity. Paradoxically, nontraditional job applicants may be more likely to possess these traits compared to individuals who have followed a more traditional course. Thus, the negative reactions to applicants with unconventional histories may cause the selection of fewer outliers, particularly outliers who are women, who have the potential to excel in fast-track positions. Because of an avoidance of the nontraditional, those best equipped to lead may never be given the opportunity to do so.”

Being a nontraditional job applicant due to voluntary interruption of college attendance had detrimental consequences for employment evaluation.

“These negative reactions were more severe for women than for men,” she said. “Women with interrupted attendance received the most negative responses. Choosing to interrupt college attendance increased perceived instability and positively affected perceived flexibility and these characterizations were related to evaluative outcomes. Female applicants did not receive as much of a boost in flexibility characterizations as equivalent male applicants did.”

Taking time off had an ambiguous impact on a woman’s a job search, Halim found.

“Look at entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs who took off time to visit India. Travel broadens your perspective and makes you worldlier. You are seen as more flexible,” she said. “However, women did not get that added boost. They were not perceived to be as flexible as men were.”

Halim attended Stanford for her bachelor’s degree in psychology and before earning her master’s degree and doctorate at NYU, the latter in 2012.

Halim feels her study fits into her overall research.

“I am interested in gender attitudes and stereotypes,” she said. “What are people’s biases when they don’t know you at all? What happens when all they know about you is your group membership?”

There are advantages to Halim performing her research at CSULB.

“I really enjoy working with the students here,” she said. “They live in the real world and bring those experiences to class. They relate to topics like discrimination. The provide insights from their own backgrounds. Whatever field they choose, students must show they have done the work. A good resume is a foot in the door for any field.”

In the end, Halim’s study suggests that tradition can make it easier to obtain a job.

“If you take the traditional path and check all the boxes, that you finished in four years and you had the right internship, then your job search will be easier,” she said. “This study suggests that, if you took time off, you need to explain your path more. You need to work hard to show you can be counted on. Then again, you may also want to search for organizations that are friendlier toward different paths.”

Halim believes responses to her own resume during her job search after college can be interpreted through her research.

“Having been a psychology major with psychology-related experience and skills probably made it more difficult to obtain business-type jobs. I suspect, especially during hard economic times when jobs were scarce,” she said. “However, in the end, it is more important to do what you want to do than what would look best on a resume. By allowing myself to explore areas I was truly interested in, I learned more about myself. I am very happy to have ended up in my current job. It fits my values and is personally fulfilling and meaningful to me, probably much more so than a job in business would have been.”