Bullish: How Do I Tell an Interviewer I Left My Last Job Because of Sexism?

Two years ago I volunteered to be part of a Steering Committee that was hosting an international conference in my field. I was assigned to be Co-Chair of the trade fair, along with another gentleman. I knew this was going to be a lot of work and organizing, and I was originally glad to have someone on my team.

However, all this gentleman did was show up for a few meetings, while I did all the work. Now that the event is recently over, it’s archived online, and he is listed at Co-Chair, which to me implies he did about 50% of the work. But in reality, it was more like a 95%-5% split, if I’m feeling generous.

Despite being a volunteer, I knew this event would pay in enormous social capital, which it has – I’m now being invited to interview for more highly paid positions in my field, I’ve made numerous international connections, and the people involved know what I did (and what he didn’t do) and will give me great references. (On the other hand, the gentleman in question ended up sending a few emails with racist comments about the woman in charge of the entire conference after it was over, so he has burned bridges with numerous people).

What I’m wondering is there a way I could discuss in interviews that I did almost all the work without sounding like I’m whining or complaining or gossipy or being negative somehow? Orif this is something I should just not address in such a situation? How can a Bullish gentlewoman spin this Bullishly?

I think that in virtually every situation ever with volunteer co-chairs, one person does more work than the other. I remember marveling that, year after year, my high school’s student government had a male president, while all the “lesser” offices were held by women, and all the unglamorous committees were chaired by women, and all the grunt work was done by women. Some big dude chaired a lot of meetings. And then a bunch of women ferried huge boxes of donuts to the winning classrooms in the United Way fund drive, etc.

But you’ve got to be classy about this.

First, list clearly on your resume which tasks you were personally responsible for. A smart reader will notice that your list sounds remarkably like “all of the tasks.” Have this list at the top of your mind so you can discuss it clearly in the interview. For instance, if you did 18 different things, you could try to group them so you don’t sound ridiculous rattling off a list of 18 things: “My personal actions in executing the conference really took place in three phrases. During the planning phase, I did X, Y, and Z. During the logistics phase….”

I can’t imagine anyone interviewing you is really going to ask about your co-chair. They’re interviewing YOU, not engaging in investigative journalism. But if it comes up, you need to take credit for your work while being magnanimous … while also possibly wink-winking at your interviewer (if your interviewer is a woman and/or a person who cares about fairness). For instance, you could say, “Well, you understand this was a volunteer position for both of us. So, I think after Elliott signed on, life happened a bit and he had to pull back from the project. This was initially a challenge for me, but ultimately I was glad for the extra responsibility because I was able to gain experience executing A, B, and C.”

I mean, that’s a good answer! You’re taking credit where credit is due, while fairly obviously being the bigger person, while also indicating that you are willing to work hard and like new challenges.

But you probably won’t get asked directly about the split of duties between you and Elliott. More likely, you’ll get asked a question about teamwork.

You can’t reply, “My co-chair screwed me over and I did everything myself.” You need to say, “During this project, I got a lot of experience working within different dynamics. At first it was me and a co-chair, and I found that he had more of an X style and I had a Y style, so I think I was effective in finding a middle ground there. But after he pulled back from the project due to other commitments, I had to lean more on [support person A] and [support person B]….”

And then you can magnanimously give credit to a mentor and an administrative assistant and the speakers at the conference and so on — while also indicating that you’re the person who brought all those wonderful people together in an organized fashion.

The subject heading of your email mentioned sexism, but it sounds like this guy’s problem is much less specific, in the sense that he’s just a loser and an asshole, right? If he were in danger of being elected to Congress, you might be morally obligated to speak out, but he’s already tanked himself! So I don’t think you should talk about sexism in your interview. You should talk about the amazing opportunity you got to work within shifting groups of teammates and to take on enormous and exciting responsibilities in putting on an international conference,

But, in general, if you really had left a job due to sexism, well … many career experts have actually (sadly! but pragmatically!) advised women against reporting sexism for exactly the reason that you could harm your own prospects of getting a new job. Yikes. What I would actually say would be something like, “I left the company because the company culture I had loved so much and really thrived in had changed for the worse. These things happen sometimes, but I hope to find a new position where I can remain and contribute for a long time.”

This will probably prompt a followup question, in response to which I’d go so far as to say, “There was a particular manager who, despite the intervention of HR, had unprofessional preferences for certain groups over others.”

Here you’re presenting yourself as someone who IS professional — so professional that you’re not naming names or muckraking. You got out and you’re interviewing and you’re ready to contribute to a more positive working culture.

Keep in mind that most people have a reasonable ability to read between the lines. The language used in corporate workplaces is so tamped down already that even the mildest suggestion that “a manager” was “unprofessional” and “preferred certain groups” is more than enough to get the message across.

Hope that helps!

Jen