Fighting Stereotypes In The Job Search

Quick, what are the first stereotypes that come to mind for these five labels:

  1. Software programmer
  2. Republican business owner
  3. Democrat who volunteers time
  4. Person with bad spelling on her resume
  5. Female driver

What are the five things that came to mind?  Perhaps it was:

  1. nerdy, not good with social skills, sometimes rude
  2. greedy capitalist
  3. cat lover who puts cats, trees and stuff like that in front of human needs
  4. unqualified and not smart or caring enough to deserve this job
  5. distracted, aloof

Now, I’m not saying that the people from the first list always, exactly, or ever match the descriptors in the second list.  But….

You see, our world is rife with generalizations, titles, categories, stereotypes.  We like to take something complex and simplify it… and have a name for it.  We like to say “he is ______” and then everyone can say “ooooooh, that explains everything. I get it now.”

It’s like when I was talking to a recruiter and he asked me about my education. I said I got a CIS degree and an MBA, and he said “oh, I know everything about you.  People like you are a dime a dozen.”

Yep, he said that.

Externally I’m sure I just looked at him… internally I was really quite bothered (furious would be too strong of a word).

I had been stereotyped, categories, generalized.

I thought “I’m so much more than that!”  Let me talk with you for a while, whether that’s five minutes of five hours, and you’ll learn that I’m not the dime-a-dozen CIS/MBA kid!

The world is full of quick-thinking categorizers (as a blogger, I’m entitled to make up words.  Wait, did I just generalize all bloggers as pompous word creators?).

I know YOU are a categorizer (which is a lot softer than saying you are biased, a stereotyper, or the very harsh word: a racist).

We all make these quick judgement categorizations in our head.  We meet someone and based on what we take in (see, smell, touch (strength of handshake), etc.) we generalize.

We learn about where they are from and make generalizations.

We hear their job title, or where they went to school, or even what state they live in or are from, and make generalizations.


Our brains are just wired to think this way.  It’s not necessarily right, it’s not necessarily fair, but it’s the way we all think.

So, how do you fight being stereotyped while you are in a job search?  Because we all know that job seekers are, for one reason or another, pathetic, right?  We know that if you were really “that good” then you wouldn’t have lost your job in the first place… right?

Oops, there I go generalizing again.

Okay, here are my thoughts on fighting the stereotypes:

  1. Accept that people will, and do, stereotype.  The biggest bias I hear about in my travels and at my presentations is that of age discrimination.  Here’s what I’ve learned: if you are “older,” it starts around 35 or 40. If you are “younger” in the professional world, it will last until you are about 30.  But trust me, even those who are between 30 and 40 will have age-based bias and discrimination.  IT JUST HAPPENS.
  2. Understand that you can break out of the stereotype.  Sometimes this is easy, but sometimes you will be fighting stereotypes in someone’s mind that are impossible to fight. It might just take sitting over lunch with someone, while they get to know you, and having the right conversation.  Once they know you as a dynamic human, instead of a prejudged (fill in the blank), then you are breaking out of the stereotype.  However, some will not be broken.  Like the woman who said “I will never hire a women in childbearing years.”  Illegal, for sure.  But something had happened to bias her against hiring someone who might have a kid. Fighting that stereotype with that person is a losing battle.
  3. Breaking out of the stereotype takes consistent work and use of tools.  Tools like a blog, where you can wax eloquent about your virtues, your experience, your value add, etc.  Tools like a strong and appropriate LinkedIn Profile.  Tools like a tagline or value statement.  Tools like a catchy or effective business card.  Tools like your choice of clothes, or how you do your hair or makeup.  Word choice, etc.  How you present yourself should be aligned with what your brand is.  Don’t assume that your resume is your (only) branding tool.
  4. You can control what your brand is.  Did you see how we shifted from “stereotypes” to “branding?”  They are pretty much the same thing.  You either have an unintentional brand, usually based on stereotypes and generalizations, or you have an intentional brand, which is how you want others to perceive you.  You need to think about how you want others to perceive you, and then actively work on your messaging, and help them perceive you that way.

These are four ideas to get you pointed in the right direction with taking control of how others perceive you.  I know this can be a lot of work, but it should be who you are. In other words, once you understand this stuff, it shouldn’t feel like it’s a lot of work.  It’s just how you act, what you do.

Once you have broken out of the stereotypes, and your brand is louder than those generalizations, you will have an easier time with all-things-career, including networking, interviewing, switching jobs, etc.