The road to hell is paved with good intentions

At work we are constantly interviewing software engineer candidates to join our product development team. We would get applicants’ resumes sourced by internal recruiters, look through them and decide whether to interview the candidate. On one occassion, there was a female applicant looking to join my colleague’s team. There weren’t many female software engineers in the company, and having a female applicant is a rare occassion, given the gender ratio is skewed towards social sciences for girls. Against everyone’s protest, the manager of that team rejected the application outright on the ground that the heavy workload and long working hours are not healthy for female engineers. It was good intention. Yet, other than violating labour laws (though it’s hardly taken seriously), there are many things wrong with that assertion.

Firstly, it was a decision based on steoreotyping female workers. Why should we assume that a male engineer is more resilient and hard working that his female counterpart. In fact, there is no scientific proof of that assumption. In many places, women are the sole bread winners for her family. There are female top performers, CEO and managers. Of course people of the same sex are still different. There are ones who love challenges and ones that like more balanced life. So it’s better to have an open conversation about how demanding the job is at the moment and let the candidate to choose for herself if she would like to give it a try. Riding her of the opportunity to choose in order to save her from possible painful experience is not doing anyone a service. What would it mean if the girl really need that job and is willing to take on whatever challenges. Rejecting people because they are not suitable to work in a stressful environment is different from rejecting people because they are of the opposite sex. The later is plainly wrong. I don’t know why such assumption is the norm.

Secondly, there was another assumption that is equally harmful. That is assuming that workers are willing to work their asses off as long as the possess the XY chromosomes. If a manager is taking an employee’s hard work for granted, he/she will have no incentive to create a better working environment. That manager would hire people without setting the right expectation. And anyone who later on realized that he did not sign up for it would become disillusional.

So managers should understand that people are different in their ability to perform and endure stress, which has nothing to do with their sex. Having understood that, managers can discuss openly with potential hires about job demands before signing them up. Employees wouldn’t be unpleasantly surprised if later on managers require him/her to work over weekends.