how can I get better at spotting talent in people different than me?

A reader writes:

I like to think I’m pretty good at judging technical abilities, but I’m wondering if I’m actually only looking for the cues that people like me (male/western culture) show. If so, I’m wondering how I can get better.

Here’s the situation that makes me wonder: At a recent technical conference, we gave prizes to young engineers for the best contributions. When the prize committee met, all agreed that “Alice” deserved first prize.

However, when I had visited that group (I work with lots of groups in this field) last year, Alice asked me for advice. I recommended she not work initially on the hard problem she was successful at, but instead start on an easier problem before tackling the hard one. She ignored me, and did a fantastic job. I clearly didn’t spot how bright Alice was. She listened to my advice, but didn’t ask any of the questions I normally see as markers of really good technical abilities. My question then is how can I improve my “spot bright people” skills.

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My coworker keeps texting me about non-emergencies
  • Why won’t anyone eat the last cookie?
  • My CEO insists on advertising jobs we’re not hiring for

{ 220 comments… read them below }

  1. SpecialSpecialist*

    I volunteer to be the last-cookie/donut-taker of all the workplaces! I have no problem taking the last one (also it lets me throwaway the container)! :D

    1. Loz*

      Good for you, and thank you for clearing up.
      We refer to the practice of ridiculous, prolonged division of food as “Rutherfording” after Ernest Rutherford of atom-splitting fame.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        Speaking of splitting things, someone once figured that after all the splitting, Voldemort was only working on .78% of a soul (which would explain a lot of his not-so-strategic decisions).

  2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    For people who used to hesitate to have direct conversations but are now comfortable doing it (or are still uncomfortable but do it regularly), can you share your techniques?

    Mine was getting therapy for trauma (caregiver used to penalize me severely for being direct or having needs), practicing scripts for what I wanted to say, and acknowledging to myself that I had fears (“but what if they say x and I don’t know how to respond?”) and consulting with a trusted mentor who I could trust to bring all my dumb-feeling questions to, and he’d help me come up with answers to the ‘what if’ questions. I realized once I had answers and plans and scripts for the ‘what if’ questions, I felt very comfortable and confident in the discussion.

    1. Random Dice*

      Thanks for sharing that.

      Ask A Manager is a big help for me!

      Also the idea that calm direct feedback IS kindness.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        Yes, Ask a Manager and Captain Awkward too! Using my words is a skill it took me a long time to develop and is still a WIP for me, but reading these two blogs help me a ton in learning to just use my words.

    2. Marna Nightingale*

      The biggest one for me has been teaching myself that being direct is not a form of treating people badly, it is a form of treating people kindly.

      Stepping into their shoes for a moment helps.

      I think most of us have had this experience: is there anything more frustrating than being positively overflowing with goodwill towards someone and eager to do everything in your power to assist them and they WILL NOT TELL YOU WHAT THEY NEED because “they don’t want to be any trouble?”

      Or, you know, a toddler who is in absolute despair because you have given them juice in The Wrong Cup but they can’t or won’t tell you which cup they want instead?

      The hard part is learning to remember about and trust in their goodwill.

      My wife has been known to observe that most anxieties, taken to their logical conclusions, require you to believe that you’re either surrounded by idiots or surrounded by jerks, and honestly, what are the odds that either of these things are true?

      The people around you are almost never the kinds of jerks who are invested in not understanding your needs and wants because they don’t want to do stuff for you. Most people, most of the time, want to know what you want so they can give it to you, whether that’s motivated by personal affection or by professional courtesy or mutual self-interest or whatever.

      So being direct is doing them a favour.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      The way I frame it in my head is that it’s unreasonable of me to expect someone to read my mind and the only way to improve performance is with direct, clear feedback. I also think that feedback should be a routine part of managerial work – if you’re providing feedback routinely, then constructive feedback is just part of that process and happens naturally.

      I do a lot of work with recent college graduates, too, and we talk about feedback as part of our orientation process. Key points are the goal of feedback is to improve work performance, it’s feedback on performance not them as a person, everyone makes mistakes or can improve, the job can be a challenge to learn and we want to share the benefit of our experiences, and that feedback goes both ways (we’ve gotten great ideas for improving training and development from our new team, especially). It’s still a process, but we start from the first day.

      Mine is somewhat trauma-informed as well. There were a lot of unspoken rules in my upbringing that I was penalized for breaking, but no one every really laid out what they were before I “broke” them. I also have a child who is on the autism spectrum and needs very clear direction to avoid being so anxious about doing something “wrong” that they can’t function. In my experience, most people are more comfortable when they know what’s expected versus having to guess or noodle it out themselves from negative feedback.

    4. Tio*

      I do a lot of practice. I’ll talk through something in my head, int he shower, and even with other people sometimes. It makes it less jarring when I actually have to do it in person, almost like muscle memory.

    5. Medium Sized Manager*

      Learning to live with the discomfort was a big part of it for me. I still don’t love certain conversations, but centering the why helps a lot. It’s much kinder to be direct than to just dance around it until it’s late.

      The other side is not feeling like you must have an answer right away! Take a pause/breath, let them know you are happy to follow up about x/y/z, etc. Sometimes it just comes from putting so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and make the conversation go perfectly, but you are also human and won’t be perfect.

    6. AnnieB*

      I literally just talked about this in therapy and one of the ways I deal with it is by being pretty casual about it, then it doesn’t feel like a big deal but a minor request, ergo no need for a gigantic shame spiral!

    7. Elbe*

      I think that this is one of those things that just get easier with time. It will likely feel really weird at first, but people generally respond positively, which is good reinforcement.

      When you are direct about what you want/need, it allows people to be direct in their response to you. So you’ll likely want to also practice getting responses that may not be ideal. If you ask for something directly and someone politely tells you no, it can be easy to interpret that as rejection or to take it as evidence that you shouldn’t have been direct in the first place. But usually it is just the opposite. It’s better to know what people are willing to give you, even if it’s not the response that you want. Graciously reacting to being turned down or having someone disagree with you is important.

  3. HonorBox*

    OP4 – Woof. I’d be pretty upset if I was applying to what appears to be a job post and finding out that the job doesn’t exist. Also, I’d be upset if I happened to be the person to whom those applications were directed. Unless they’re going to an unused account, surely someone is seeing them and having to do SOMETHING with them. And who is fielding the calls or emails from candidates who have taken the time to apply and are now inquiring about the process? It seems like such a bad setup all around, and is probably going to lead to more bad feelings than any actual benefit.

    While you probably can’t entirely change the CEO’s mind, maybe pointing out that you’re doing more harm than good, which ultimately has a negative impact on the business long-term, might be helpful.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Seriously this, and I wouldn’t want to work for an organization that did this. If I found out my employer was doing this I’d want to start looking elsewhere.

    2. My Useless 2 Cents*

      Maybe it’s just me but when I see jobs advertised over and over again for the same company I start to wonder about that company and my initial thoughts are not positive. The idea that the company is “growing” doesn’t even top the list of potential possibilities.

      My first thoughts would be more like:
      1. What is wrong with the job(s) that they never seem to find someone?
      2. What kind of unicorn are they expecting to apply?
      3. What is wrong with the company that they can’t keep employees?

      1. OtterB*

        Yeah … my husband once took a job at a small organization that advertised repeatedly. There was a reason they kept needing to refill that position.

        And in general this seems like a bad idea. You are actively training good candidates not to apply to you.

      2. AngryOctopus*

        There is a subset of companies who advertise the same position basically constantly–research hospitals do this a lot because they are looking for research technicians. Probably 90% of starting techs don’t have a field they are committed to working in, so they apply to the generic ad and their resume is shot out to most hiring labs, who get back to anyone they’re interested in. I think this also probably happens with places that need a lot of low level accountants, etc–always a lot of jobs to fill, and turnover with people moving up or heading to higher education. But having said that, obviously you have to see the context of the job ad to know that!

      3. Nina*

        I’m applying for one of those. I know why it’s hard to fill. It’s in the f*cking Arctic Circle, in an industry where almost nobody would seriously consider living north of about Birmingham, and companies are tightly clustered around the equator for an extremely good reason.

          1. Nina*

            Orbital rocket launch! Launching at the equator (as opposed to a pole) gives you a 1650 km/h boost to your initial speed, due to earth’s rotation. So good sites are nearer to the the equator than to the poles, on the east coast of a landmass (so you can launch over water, not over towns). And obviously the dev and test sites tend to try and be close to launch sites. This company just happened to score a free test site wayyyyy up in the frozen north and kind of shrugged and went with it.

            (No, I don’t know what’s with Wallops Island, that’s just weird.)

      4. Salsa Your Face*

        I interviewed for a job once that I thought would be a great fit–I had experience in 80% of the requirements and the rest wouldn’t have been a huge stretch to learn. I was rejected with the explanation that they were looking for someone with more experience. For the next six months, recruiter after recruiter reached out to me to see if I was interested in that role, and when I told them I had already interviewed and been rejected they were continually flabbergasted. I eventually accepted another role, but continued to see that same listing posted for another full year. I have no idea what they were looking for, but I hope they eventually found it.

      5. Lenora Rose*

        Yeah, I applied to two very similar jobs a couple of months apart once from a non-profit I thought had a good cause and matched my credentials. Heard nothing (and I was getting regular interview requests off my resume), shrugged it off.

        Until I saw their ad for a third, then fourth, then fifth month. At which point I decided it was a good thing they didn’t contact me, as either they were a terrible workplace, they were too picky, or they were doing this exact “always hiring (but not really)” nonsense. Now just based on that, I wouldn’t even consider working for them.

    3. Kevin Sours*

      CEOs seem to have this weird idea that people can’t figure stuff out on their own. Dude it’s not going to look like you are growing once it gets around that you never interview people.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Also, exactly who is he trying to fool? I don’t think I’ve ever specifically wanted to work at a company with lots of job openings, and presumably investors and such would have actual numbers.

      2. ccsquared*

        In general, I wonder about anyone who thinks hiring by duping people is a winning strategy. Do they think they are just that much smarter than everyone else? Are they so cynical that they don’t believe it’s possible to get decent people through decent means? Does playing by the rules bore them and they’re just trying to see what they can get away with for funsies? Like sure, everyone fluffs things up a little in the process, but outright engineering a false impression like this is just not something that would even occur to me to try, and even it it did, I would have no confidence in my ability to pull it off.

    4. I'm Just Here For The Cats!!*

      also, what if you are the employee in the position that is being posted and you know that the company is not growing or they are looking for another person in X position? If that happened to me I would feel like I was being pushed out.

    5. Toolate12*

      You can def solve this problem with a simple resume drop linked on your website (I’ve seen this marked as “General Resume Submission”) – I’ve been looking around and have noticed a handful of organizations that do passive collections of resumes like this

  4. El l*

    I think the general rules are fairly common sense, if hard to practice:

    1. See who avoids jargon and who can clearly exposit their ideas.
    2. See who can state (a) What’s the issue, (b) Why’s the issue matter and why’s it difficult, and (c) Their proposed solution.
    3. See who can grasp the intuitive ideas, and who can accurately say, “Now we’re in technical territory.”
    4. See who can listen to you and take in what you say – and then disagree and do otherwise.

    And so on.

    1. Web Crawler*

      I feel like even these general rules fail sometimes though, with people who are better at executing ideas than talking about them.

      1. snailsharkk*

        Very much this. I’m neurodivergent and cannot really talk through my thoughts, but I can execute. IMO there are no real “tells” for capability or intelligence and the things we often assume are markers of those things tend to be bogged down with bias.

      2. Chilipepper Attitude*

        Yes, this! I think those 4 steps actually do the opposite – they reinforce choosing people who are like you.
        there are such differences in how we hear people who are different from us that you are just as likely to miss someone clearly articulating their ideas as you are to notice them doing so. Gender is a big one but so are cultural differences!

        I have had leaders point out times that I said x, and everyone shrugged. Then the guy next to me said x and everyone loved the idea!

        Ask any woman – or all the women who worked in the Obama White House and how they used “amplification” to get men to hear what women were saying. Even in feminist spaces, it can be tough!

    2. Catdog*

      Knowing how to frame problems in just these ways seems like something people learn from their environment, though, so judging someone not being able to answer these exact questions seems like it could/would contribute to potential bias rather than reduce it?

      1. Emilia Bedelia*

        Even if you don’t know exactly how to phrase a question or problem, someone with a good sense of what matters in their technical area should be able to convey what the problem is.

        As an example: Let’s say I’m choosing a material for my new teapot design in my highly regulated teapot industry, and I ask a junior level teapot engineer for their input. I would expect them to say something along the lines of: “Teapots get hot, right? We should find a material that can get really hot and hold heat. I don’t know how hot tea is, but that would be important to know. Also, people drink tea. So we should make sure that the teapot is ok to drink out of. If there is a list of not-safe materials and safe materials, we should check it out to see what some good materials would be”.
        An experienced teapot engineer with more industry specific knowledge would say something about testing methods for heat retention and complying with ASTM 1234 – Teapot Materials and would recommend several state of the art materials. They didn’t necessarily have the same level of details, but fundamentally, junior engineer and experienced engineer both got to the same place.

        Most technical people who have SOME level of experience will have a general semblance of an approach to a new problem. Even if the person were previously a water bottle engineer, or even a toilet engineer, you should have a general idea of what questions to ask and what information you need to address a problem. No one is perfect of course, but in most technical disciplines, you should be able to take a look at a problem and figure out at least a few things about it.

        1. Web Crawler*

          I agree with this in principle, but I think it assumes a scenario where people are able to explain their thought processes in full. I feel like, when you’re ND or used to being cut off after “teapots get hot, right?” that changes how you approach problems verbally.

          1. lemon*

            Yep. I came here to add that as a woman of color in tech, it’s been very difficult for me to learn to talk through problems, because of how often I get cut off when asking a question. Even if I don’t get cut off, people just start from the base assumption that you don’t know what you’re talking about. If I asked, “teapots get hot, right?” I’d get a condescending response that would seem to indicate that I’m asking an incredibly obvious, stupid question. But then I’ve seen white, male people ask the same question, and they’re given the benefit of the doubt that they’re thinking through a problem / going somewhere with it. I’ve learned to just… not ask questions. And then folks are surprised when I’m able to do something they thought was beyond my skill level.

            1. Hannah Lee*

              This so much!

              If the person OP is speaking to has never had the privilege of having space and time to think out loud or be part of a fluid exchange of ideas , or is not part of the dominant gender, race, culture, background or they are not plugged into the institutional or professional or cultural norms that indicate they are in a “free discussion” session vs one where OP is the authority conveying info or asking questions, they can be the most astute, technically knowledgeable, skilled person in the room and still not presume that they are allowed to speak their mind and share what they know or ask questions in that moment.

              For example, while I was a very smart college student, it wasn’t until YEARS after I graduated that I realized that professors’ office hours were posted with the expectation that students could and should pop by and talk to the professor for clarification of course material, guidance on assignments, tips on how to succeed in the class or perspective on courses of study or career paths or life. I always thought I’d be bothering them, or they’d think less of me for needing help instead of just muscling through on my own. Or that only people who had an established relationship with the professor should be the ones to come by, not just ‘random ordinary students’ like me. I had no exposure to those norms, came from a crappy high school where girls like me weren’t really encouraged in the sciences, I never presumed a teacher would welcome me at their office hours. So if a professor used “comes to see me outside of class” as their primary measure of students’ engagement, they would have missed how hard I was working. (and depending on how they conducted class discussions, they might have missed my engagement there too, if they just focused on the loudest, mostly male voices)

              And back to workplaces and evaluating potential, it’s important to think through WHAT you’re trying to assess and WHY ahead of time, and make sure you’re structuring each interaction to focus on THAT. So, if you’re looking for technical knowledge or whatever, figure out ways to get at that without drowning that info out focusing on communication skills, or ease of interaction or something else extraneous. Prepare some questions where you can prompt all candidates to share their technical knowledge if you find it’s not coming up organically, and start off the sessions by framing your expectations of the interaction (or ideally, let candidates know in advance what you expect the sessions will be, how they will flow)

              IME what LW describes is a good situation to “so, tell me about … ” questions, with your follow up questions, comments based on what the other person is saying (as opposed to just being the next question on your list) You don’t just want to give them a chance to speak, you also should be giving them permission to speak, encouragement to speak and to take up space. And then you want to demonstrate that you’re engaged with what they’re saying.

              – can you walk me through a project you were excited about? (or your most recent whatever)
              with follow ups like “what was the biggest technical challenge?” or “did the project go as planned? if not, how did you manage that?”

          2. Willow Pillow*

            Yes, so much this. I am ND and I’ve had several conversations where people dismiss me because I’m not following the status quo by rote – they’re so stuck on it that I struggle to get the dialogue past that bias. I appear incapable, like I can’t follow simple instructions, while the underlying issue is how complex the systems are that make those instructions seem simple.

            (Also: the phrase “common sense”, as used in the top-level comment here, always stirs suspicion. I have long believed that common sense is unconscious bias… which bring us back to the reason this letter was written.)

            1. Nina*

              If you’re a non-chemical kind of engineer, common sense would dictate that fires can (almost universally) be put out with a CO2 extinguisher.

              This is fine unless you’re working with an unholy mixture of silanes and hydrides, in which case adding extra CO2 will cause a) the fire to get bigger as the silanes react with the CO2 and b) the hydrogen released from the hydrides to explode.

              The chemist sitting in the corner of the room saying ‘actually, we need to use powder for that one’ will get ignored because that’s dumb, powder’s messy, common sense dictates that you use the extinguisher that puts out the widest range of fires with the least hassle.

              Just as an example :)

              1. Affine Transform*

                “If you’re a non-chemical kind of engineer, common sense would dictate that fires can (almost universally) be put out with a CO2 extinguisher.”

                I’m really confused by this statement. I’ve never been either a chemist or a chemical engineer, and I have also never met a person who worked with flammables who believed such a thing.

                1. Nina*

                  I am not a non-chemical engineer so I wouldn’t know, but that’s what all their trains of thought immediately went to when faced with that problem. I was not an engineer so the general attitude was ‘well wtf do you know’.

            2. Web Crawler*

              I translate “common sense” in my mind to “conventional wisdom”. There’s areas where common sense works. There’s also areas where common sense is just bias that the majority of people don’t unlearn. And there’s mostly cases where common sense works halfway, but not for any edge case. (And if you’re an “edge case” person, you definitely notice all the times that conventional wisdom fails.)

              1. Willow Pillow*

                I don’t see that translation improving anything – it still carries the expectation that people understand something without explanation. I remember finding out the hard way that I’d missed a step in a technical processed – when I mentioned to the trainer that this hadn’t been mentioned to be, his response was “it’s just common sense.” If it had been “it’s just conventional wisdom”, nothing would have changed – not the perception that I didn’t need to be told, not the fact that I did need to be told, not the flippant-feeling response.

            3. marvin*

              I have a similar issue. I am actually very good at the work I do, but I’m not really able to explain or demonstrate this in a way that neurotypical people recognize right away. Usually a few months into a new job, my boss will make the surprising discovery that I’m a good employee and from then on, it clicks for them. I guess I don’t have the NT markers of a successful person, despite having the ability to do the work.

        2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          Depending on what answer you’re looking for there, and what you’re willing to accept, someone may or may not also miss someone with different priorities or life experience. Are you (and not just you, maybe you personally are already doing a great job here) also open to someone whose first thought is about handle strength? Or fragility? Or whether the material is porous and absorbs flavor from the tea (and if they think that’s a good or a bad thing)? Or whether the material, while food-safe, changes the taste of the tea?

          Has the engineer even made tea? Or perhaps they have, but they’ve only encountered those mediocre hot water machines that barely get above tepid.

          Here’s a real-life example: I once realized that one of my hardest-working (and best-performing) students was taking twice as long on a particular set of exercises because she didn’t know the words for colors in English (and tldr wasn’t in a situation where it was easy to look them up). The people who made the exercises assumed that “what color is red” was common knowledge, but for this extremely bright woman, it wasn’t.

          1. metadata minion*

            I had a similar issue in the library once — one of our shelvers, an international student, was generally a quick learner and seemed to have a very firm grasp of the organizational system, he kept making alphabetization errors. And I realized that of course he is; his native language uses a different writing system and while he was a very fluent English speaker, there’s no actual reason for him to have perfectly memorized the order of the alphabet.

    3. Affine Transform*

      Point 1: There is no need to avoid jargon when presenting at a technical conference. For clearly expositing ideas to people in the same discipline, it is much better to use the subject matter specific terms.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        Yeah, it’s not really jargon if it’s used in context. It’s just ordinary working vocabulary of the subject at hand.

        1. Sam I Am*

          Agree. I don’t want to spend time explaining what a fermata is when I just need the other musicians to know who will indicate that it’s time to stop holding the note.

        2. Kevin Sours*

          “It’s just ordinary working vocabulary of the subject at hand”.

          That’s the definition of jargon

      2. Nom*

        There is a balance though – many people spit out jargon salad which makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about. The listener has to be trained to listen beyond the jargon to understand if an actual point is being made. I believe that is the point the original commenter is making. That being said – yes, jargon has its use.

        1. Affine Transform*

          “The listener has to be trained to listen beyond the jargon to understand if an actual point is being made.”

          They were at a technical conference. If the listeners can’t understand the presentations/projects due to terminology, that’s a problem with the listeners, not the presenters. Sure, sometimes there is an high school student or early undergrad student who hasn’t learned the material yet. You don’t tailor your talks to them, though.

      3. The Araucana*

        Yes! I’ve been trying to explain this to my coworkers! I’m generally an advocate for avoiding jargon, but there’s absolutely a time and place for it. There’s good jargon and bad jargon.

        Good jargon enhances communication by using specific terminology that makes the message clearer, more precise and/or more nuanced. Both speaker and audience need to know the meaning of the terminology to make this successful. (Like they would in a technical conference!)

        Bad jargon clouds communication and creates barriers between the speaker and audience. This is what happens when a speaker understands terminology, but their audience doesn’t. If the speaker is a good communicator, they’ll adapt their message to explain/avoid/rephrase terminology.

        The key as always is to understand the context and audience.

    4. ferrina*

      Should be noted that these aren’t always exhibited through a single conversation. A single conversation is not usually conclusive of anything (for example, there’s folks that talk a good game but can’t follow through, and folks that struggle to articulate but are extremely good at executing, etc).

      Example from item 1- they might struggle in the first conversations because they are processing information/sleep-deprived/distracted by something more urgent/generally not great at off-the-cuff communication/intimidated by you/etc. But they work really well with their collaborators, everyone knows what the project’s goal is and what their role is, you find that departments that usually move like molasses are flowing smoothly with this person, the email updates are well organized and highlight key info, etc.

    5. Heidi*

      I noticed that the OP mainly talked about the questions that Alice asked, but didn’t mention whether he had listened to explain her own ideas for any substantial amount of time. I think giving people time to talk without interruption and encouraging them to express their ideas gets you more insight into their thought process.

      1. popko*

        I noticed this too, and it also made me wonder along another train of thought– women often don’t “own” their ideas as strongly as men and may phrase their thoughts/plans less firmly, which some people mistake for insecurity/looking for guidance instead of recognizing it as a different communication style. If the LW falls into that group, he may be overly-focusing on ‘answering’ the person’s ‘question’ rather than recognizing the talent/compentency required for even having the idea in the first place, and in general letting the idea of the other person’s ‘insecurity’ overshadow the content of their thoughts.

        I’ve seen the pattern before of “woman suggests a brilliant idea using uptalk and gets condescending pats on the head from people who never would have had the idea in the first place; man suggests a mediocre idea with full confidence and gets congratulatory slaps on the back,” so that could be playing a role here. Really think about whether you’re focusing on the content of what the person is saying rather than just how they say it!

        (I will also say, Alice may not have asked the “right questions” because she was saving them for after the LW’s initial feedback, and then decided he wouldn’t be a great resource for answering them after he told her she needed to pursue something more simple, or because she already had a solid plan for resolving those questions and didn’t feel like she needed assistance… so perhaps the LW could also try asking the candidates what their thoughts are in those areas instead of waiting for them to ask him first.)

        1. lemon*

          …women often don’t “own” their ideas as strongly as men and may phrase their thoughts/plans less firmly, which some people mistake for insecurity/looking for guidance instead of recognizing it as a different communication style.

          yes, this is spot on!

        2. Green Tea*

          Yeah your last point is what I was thinking on this. If most of Alice’s questions were about how best to tackle her very cool idea, and OP made clear he didn’t think Alice should do her very cool idea, I get why Alice chose not to ask him those questions. And since she had no intention of doing OP’s suggested basic idea, it would have been a waste of time and energy to ask thoughtful questions about the basic idea.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            Yeah my read there is that he was being patronising, it hadn’t occurred to him that this “little girl” might be brilliant, because usually you need a penis for that.

        3. Nina*

          I’m from a country where ‘uptalk’ is… just how we talk. It’s part of the national accent, everyone (men, women, kids, high ‘status’ people, low ‘status’ people, old people, young people) and it doesn’t mean we’re asking a question, it just means that’s the end of the sentence. When I worked in the US for a while, people thought I was a moron if they met me in person before we’d had much correspondence in writing.

      2. bamcheeks*

        Yes! That jumped out to me too. LW, I work with students, and I cannot stress enough that you need to lead with open questions:

        “What sort of approach are you thinking of?”
        “Tell me about a similar problem you’ve worked on?”
        “Talk me through how you’d approach this.”
        “What have you tried so far?”

        I can’t stress enough how important this is. It’s very normal to make snap judgments based on lots of internal cues like accent, dress, ethnicity, bearing, gender, nationality and so on. I know I do this. But the reason I know is because I’ve been in front of students like this, mentally preparing what information I’m going to need and what approach I’m going to take, and the way they’ve answered questions like this has made me stop, do a mental 180 and start in a totally different place.

        You’ll find what kind of questions work for the kind of situations you’re in. But the really important thing is to ask open questions and r then LISTEN: you’ll get a lot of surprises and frankly that’s delightful.

    6. anone*

      This is a good example of the bias that OP is running into. Your indicators here would likely fail to catch someone who is very bright, but has also been socialized not to speak directly or contradict someone with more status/authority than them, or who doesn’t excel at expressing their ideas/intelligence verbally and linearly. The issue is that there’s a very deeply entrenched idea about what “intelligence” looks like which is quite limited and biased, but it’s so prevalent that many people believe it’s simply commonsense. Alison’s original advice for OP to reflect on what he learned from that experience with Alice and to expand his worldview by reading/taking in media from people with different experiences from him is good advice.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        Yeah. I tend not to say too much (unless my buttons are pushed). One boss, who was very good at pushing my career in the most logical and interesting direction for me, once casually remarked that “with you, every word counts”. I rolled my eyes at that because it was just obvious to me: of course I’m not going to ramble, I’ll be interrupted before I get to my point. But after a few meetings where I’ll make a very salient point, and everyone else just carries on because they need to hear their own voice for X minutes before they’re prepared to listen to anyone else, then some man will finally,, laboriously, get to the point where they can have a eureka moment of suddenly understanding, and making … my point, I realised that it was better to make my point, and then ask the boss whether he understood my reasoning, just so that people would actually take what I said into account.

  5. guvoroya*

    I work in Tech & in my own experience, men, more than women, tend to feel they’re experts in some new technology (an application, a software language, a methodology, etc.) after limited exposure (took an online course or read a book). Women more than men tend to not refer to themselves as experts even after having a few years of experience with a particular technology. Yes, generalities here, but this is just what I’ve personally observed.

    1. nm*

      I work in university education and have read some observational studies that bear this out as well. In particular asking students about their grades in terms of explicit numbers, vs asking them to use a descriptor of their grades–women tend to describe their scores with much more negative to neutral terms than men who scored the same point values.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        Me in grad school: “My grades are decent.”
        My grades: 3.97 GPA

        In retrospect I’m not sure what my threshold for “good” was.

        1. MidWasabiPeas*

          Same…Oh My God, so much the same. I graduated from grad school with all As and 1 B and it took me YEARS to stop giving that single B more emotional weight than all the As put together.

        2. CommanderBanana*

          Hah, yeah, graduated with a 3.9 and a 3.8 from BA and MA, had a super high SAT score…but I spent my whole life up until then being told how mediocre I was, so I internalized it.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        This is part of the definition of stereotype threat, in my understanding. If you tell a man and a woman that they got an 80% on a STEM aptitude assessment, men are far more likely than women to think they did well and should continue.

        The corollary to this is that the women who do stick with STEM are likely to be much better at it, on average, than the men who do. (Same is true with other disadvantaged groups such as black, indigenous and latine people.)

        1. Irish Teacher.*

          My brother and I were almost identical as regards school grades, etc (he got 10 points more than me out of 600, in the Leaving Cert., so barely more than 3% in the difference), yet he was SHOCKED when he got to college and found out he wasn’t top of the class whereas I saw myself as above average but nothing special (we both got grades where about 12% of the population got higher than us). And yes, I was the one who was teased about being “too confident” and “thinking I knew everything.”

        2. bamcheeks*

          I changed schools at 16, and went to a school where anyone who was predicted an
          top grade in GCSE Maths was put in an accelerated programme and did it a year early in year 10, then started the A level curriculum in year 11. The result was that in year 12 when you go to choose your subjects, an equal number of girls and lads from the accelerated programme went on to do maths A level. Only one girl who hadn’t been in the accelerated programme went on to do A level maths, along with about 18 boys.

          So there was a top set of accelerated maths which was equally male and female, and then a second set with a 1:18 ratio.

    2. Web Crawler*

      This. In my experience, it’s because when people saw me as a woman in tech, they seemed to be searching for my weaknesses. I couldn’t get away with claiming to be an expert even after years with a technology because somebody would ask me pointed questions about some obscure function with very little practical value.

      Now that I’m seen as a (seemingly able-bodied white) man, all I have to say is that I know a framework, and people are like “yeah, he’s an expert”. It’s really not fair how big of a difference the reception that I get is.

      1. Meep*

        It is always interesting to me to see the reverse of this. Especially with older MTF people who lived most of their corporate lives as men and are in for a culture shock when they are finally seen as women.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        I’m reminded of Ben Barres, a Stanford Neurobiology Professor, who overheard a colleague talking about how much better his work was than that of his “sister”. *facepalm*

      3. SheInventedItButHeExplainedIt*

        I still remember the guy who mansplained a theory – badly – to the female researcher who developed the theory. She pointed to her name on the paper and he ignored it and kept “correcting” her until she could escape.

        There is a reason why my research papers at school (physics) were submitted as FirstInitial MiddleInitial LastName. Of course, I was still the last author behind my advisors, but that’s a different issue.

        1. Lbd*

          Was this the guy who recommended she read a certain book on the subject, that she would probably be really interested in it, as it was an excellent resource for the subject? And she was the author of the book, and he was oblivious?

    3. learnedthehardway*

      From a recruitment perspective, I can confirm. I drill down to find out who exactly accomplished things, and there’s a definite trend that male candidates will over-claim accomplishments / skills / expertise, and that female candidate will under-claim the same things. It’s not universal, but it’s definitely a thing.

    4. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Also, there was a study or just an observation that girls tended to NOT show their work when they were working out an idea. They cleared their code and asked for help starting over. It obscured their attempts and what they knew and changed what the prof understood about their skill level. So there are lots of things to overcome when assessing skill!

      1. Web Crawler*

        That’s something I’ve never thought about, but it makes sense. When I was seen as a woman, showing my work often became a liability. Instead of looking at my thought processes, people would nitpick my rough drafts. It’s exhausting having to explain why I didn’t polish my scratch work. So it was easier to blank out what I’m doing and ask for help from scratch.

        1. kiki*

          I think that’s a huge difference in how men and women are conditioned by society. Women are penalized for every unsuccessful attempt whereas men are given credit for trying and failing. I think about this a lot when I hear stories about how my male coworkers loved taking things apart and putting them back together when they were little and how their parents and teachers encourage them (for the most part). I also liked to do that, but was almost always reprimanded. Or if I didn’t succeed on the first attempt, an adult would jump in and do it themselves.

          Allowing folks to try new things AND FAIL at them is a huge part of learning. But the opportunity to do both is often not given to women at the same rate it is to men.

    5. MigraineMonth*

      As another woman in tech, I’ve noticed that some men look for recruits in communities they were part of, but that aren’t as welcoming for women, black people, or people with family responsibilities. As an example, I’ve seen recruitment targeting e-sports players, people with startup experience, or those who donate their time to open-source projects. Yes, you’re going to find people with technical ability in those communities, but you would miss out on candidates like me.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        yes. I remember a friend telling me her son had just joined the Paris lawyers’ rugby team. It was a good opportunity to play rugby and of course network! She was very smug at how brilliantly her son was managing his career. I made a remark about how sexist that was, because the Paris lawyers sewing club would not offer the same opportunities to his girlfriend. It did not go down well.

        (The girlfriend has found a job representing an environmental NGO and is delighted even though of course she isn’t paid half what the son is now earning. I don’t see much of a future in their relationship.)

    6. kiki*

      Yeah, in a similar vein, my uncle is a professor in a technical field at a university. So many of his C-average male students feel very confident and end up with successful jobs in their field. Many of his female students who get an A- or B will express that they’re, “just not good at this,” and often even tell him that they “need” to drop out of their major. We condition men and women differently a lot of the time.

    7. Meep*


      OP1’s problem is he is clearly biased. He may not mean to be, but internalized misogyny makes him look at a woman asking questions and not listening to him and see “incompetent” while internalized misogyny make women feel like they need to ask a ton of questions. Something tells me, though, even if Alice hadn’t asked any questions, OP would’ve thought she was a b*tch, because we also have the layer of all men are threatened by competent women.

      1. Green Tea*

        My read of the post was that Alice *didn’t* ask OP a lot of questions, not that she did.

        1. Nesprin*

          My read is that if Alice had asked a lot of questions, OP would have wondered why she didn’t know the answer to them yet.

          1. Green Tea*

            The exact wording OP says is “She listened to my advice, but didn’t ask any of the questions I normally see as markers of really good technical abilities.”

            So he only addresses the absence of what he sees as smart questions. It’s hard and likely not productive to guess at hypotheticals like how OP would have judged questions if Alice had asked them. Certainly many of us have been in a situation where our questions were judged more harshly than a male counterpart, so I get the impulse, but it’s beyond the letter.

            1. Meep*

              I disagree. OP was asking about his bias and how he could be so wrong about Alice. It boils down to how he was raised as a western cis man vs how western cis women are raised.

              1. Green Tea*

                From your comment, you clearly seemed to interpret the letter as saying Alice asked a bunch of questions, and explained why a woman might do that, when in fact the letter said the opposite. Someone trying to wrestle with their internal biases and thinking ‘she didn’t ask any of the questions I’d expect her to, what might her reasons have been to not ask questions, and what other signs of promise should I have looked out for?’ is not going to work through that bias by reading a comment about why women are more inclined to ask questions.

                In fact, it might make them feel validated that this wasn’t caused by bias after all. Because Alice had not, in fact, asked questions, and here you are saying women ask lots of questions, so maybe this wasn’t a gendered difference at all.

        2. Meep*

          My point is OP was going to be unhappy regardless because she is a woman and therefore ~less competent~ (when in actuality, it is how we are expected to operate).

          1. amoeba*

            But there’s nothing in the letter to indicate that? I feel it’s a bit unfair to judge OP like that, especially as he’s obviously trying to improve and asking for advice!

    8. Joielle*

      Definitely agreed! I’m in law, not tech, but it’s the same here. I vividly remember sitting in a law school class years ago and listening to an extremely mediocre male student disagree with a female professor about an area of law that she had been studying for years, and he had just read a case on it that day. Meanwhile there were so many brilliant women in that class keeping quiet because they didn’t want to speak up until they were sure they had all the nuances right. After that day I started making a conscious effort to say my opinions out loud even if I wasn’t 100% confident. These mediocre dudes were doing it so why shouldn’t I? That is a lesson that has served me well throughout my career.

    9. CommanderBanana*

      Also just a friendly reminder that patients of women doctors have lower mortality rates.

      Just something to think about.

  6. Parenthesis Guy*

    LW #1: Sometimes the best way to spot bright people is to see what they accomplish and instead of judging them on their questions.

    1. My Useless 2 Cents*

      Agree. I tend to need time to absorb new information so I don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. And when it involves something like tech, I usually need hands-on experience to really development meaningful questions. A brief conversation is typically not going to reveal the depth of my knowledge on a particular subject, especially if you are judging that on the questions I may or may not ask.

      1. AngryOctopus*

        I’m the same. My new boss last year asked me if I thought I’d ever ask questions in lab meeting, and I said “probably not because I need time to synthesize new information and I probably won’t realize I have a question until I’ve thought it over”. And a reason I really like him is that he said “Okay makes sense” and we moved on. He was just trying to suss out my lab personality. I’m guessing Alice is the kind of person who heard the advice, went back, thought about it and what kind of challenge she likes, and then went for it (and succeeded, hooray for her!). If OP had said “I’d recommend X for newer people, [reasons], but please if you have questions on Y, I’d love to answer them” she might have gotten back to him with questions showing that Y was a great challenge for her. OP, be more open to different ways of thinking and processing! Make yourself available for questions after the fact, after giving people time to process, and you may be surprised!

        1. Chirpy*

          Yeah, I’m not always good at coming up with questions on the spot either.
          Sometimes I don’t know enough to know what’s a good question to ask until I’ve worked on it for a while and have had time to process.

      2. dryakumo*

        Same. I am lucky enough to work somewhere that I can say, “I need some time to process this info, can I come back to you with questions later?” My brain needs time to percolate.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      Agreeing. How would you know whether someone really knew their stuff or not, simply because they didn’t ask questions. Perhaps they already know everything you are going to tell them, but are too polite to point that out.

      I’m guessing that when Alice asked for advice, and was told not to try the harder problem, that was exactly the advice she was looking for – which problem was the hardest, so that she could tackle it. Good for her!

    3. Mantis shrimp*

      Exactly. And, as a woman in tech, I’ve dealt with a lifetime of men tearing down my ideas. This has resulted in my not presenting ideas until they are rock solid in my head. So, if I’m at a fair and exposing a thing, and a male comes along and says things, I’m not going to ask a lot of questions on the spot, because I feel so underqualified. I’m going to remember what he said, research the hell out of those ideas, and then feel more prepared to ask about them the next time. But, by OP#1’s standard, I don’t get a next time. The corollary, is if I *do* ask a lot of questions, OP#1 will go away thinking I’m slightly more incompetent than my male colleagues. I’m never treated on par. Sadly, this is what a career in tech has taught me.

  7. Dust Bunny*

    LW1: I’m not clear here on how well you knew Alice or how much you knew about her work at the time she asked you. It’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest an easier project if the person is new/ish at that kind of thing, but if she already had some relevant experience then she might reasonably have been able to skip a few levels. But you’d need to know that.

    On the other hand, if you didn’t know, did you ask?

    I sew as a hobby and if somebody asks me for simple sewing projects to do for fun, I’ll ask them first how much sewing they’ve done and do they want beginner projects to practice the sewing part, or do they want projects that are more technically sophisticated (although still pretty easy if you have some sewing miles behind you) but lend themselves readily to variation and creativity. The basics of sewing are a different animal from the design part.

    1. MsM*

      I also wonder if Alice didn’t bother asking OP any detailed follow-up questions because she wasn’t impressed with his assumption she couldn’t handle the thing she actually wanted to know about.

      1. Nesprin*

        +1 There’s a well established pattern of giving in group people the benefit of the doubt that they know what they’re talking about but demanding that out group people prove themselves over and over.

        I’d bet money that OP treated Alice differently than her peers.

        1. Marna Nightingale*

          I’d be money on that as well, but would like to note that it’s fairly rare for a person to notice and pull themselves up on something like that after a single incident of being wrong and surprised.

          OP may have one (1) small cookie, and we wish him very well on his quest to Be Better.

        2. marvin*

          I think anyone who hasn’t personally experienced this should do their best to educate themselves about it if they’re going to be in a position of authority. It’s tricky because it is designed to be invisible to the in-group people, but it majorly affects who is rewarded for ambition, creativity, willingness to try new things, ability to learn from mistakes, and so on. A skilled and thoughtful manager can counteract this pattern and give talented people the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, and everyone benefits.

      2. ScruffyInternHerder*

        Can confirm that if someone assumes I can’t handle something (that I’d eat for breakfast), I’m certainly not going to bother asking any detailed follow up questions.

      3. Turquoisecow*

        I wonder if OP would have given the same advice if Alice was a man. If the situation was exactly the same but a different gender, would OP have given the same recommendation to stick with the easier problem, or would he have still made the same assumptions about abilities? Did he assume based on where Alice was in terms of her education or experience level, or did he underestimate because of her gender? It may not be possible to honestly answer that question, but I think it’s worthwhile for OP to think about.

      4. NewJobNewGal*

        I have experienced the dumbing down of answers so much that when it happens to me, I just walk away. I’ve never broken through the wall of people who assume women in tech are all beginners, posers, or whatever. I only need to ask one question to understand who I am working with, and I’ve waisted too much of my life trying to impress the unimpressible.
        If you can’t see me for me, then I’m moving on.

      5. Chirpy*

        This, if I’m asking a question on a higher level topic, if the person tells me I should start with a more basic thing instead, I’m not going to ask them more questions than absolutely necessary. That answer wasn’t useful, because they either didn’t hear or understand what I was asking, or they jumped straight to assuming I wasn’t capable of doing that thing.

        Also, as a woman, I have had people (particularly men) immediately assume I know nothing because I’m a woman far, far too often. It usually looks something like this example, so it’s a big red flag.

      6. Carit*

        Exactly this! Right or wrong, I’d have tuned him out at that point, too.

        Women in STEM so so so often are told to try something easier that it will never come across well when that’s the advice given – it’s simply a marker of someone all about the status quo.
        Unless the woman has specifically framed the question about necessary avenues *and* there’s been significant discussion digging into background and prior work, it’s an insultingly patronizing piece of advice (“this one is too hard for you, dear”).

        I’m very glad that LW1 recognized that there’s something out of whack with his perceptions. I think some serious reading in implicit bias and deep reflection on his role as a gatekeeper are in order!!!

        1. I have RBF*

          Women in STEM so so so often are told to try something easier that it will never come across well when that’s the advice given – it’s simply a marker of someone all about the status quo.


          I’m AFAB. When I was seen as a woman at one job, I mentioned to my grandboss that my plan was to move into management. He recommended that I go into project management first – a non-technical job that would take me away from ever being a manager of technical people. Yet in the same organization me were promoted directly from IC to manager, they did not have to go be a non-technical project manager first.

          Needless to say, I never brought that subject up with him again. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere.

      7. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Yes, OP, going forward, if someone who doesn’t look like you asks about what you consider Level 2 or above, don’t automatically recommend they go to Step 1.

        Let’s imagine her letter:

        Dear Alison,
        I met a peer in my field and asked for his input on step 3 level of a project. He suggested that I abandon it and try step 1 level work.
        I heard from a friend in the field that he was shocked that I won an award for my work and wondered how he missed that I was as capable in my field as I am.
        He said I didn’t ask follow up questions to his suggestions. I said, he didn’t answer my question at all, but rather pointed me toward lesser work.
        Is there anyway to help him realize that I wouldn’t be winning a lot of awards if I spent my time with people who would rather lecture me on what I already know instead of helping me with what I really asked?

        1. Cedrus Libani*

          Agreed. I was visibly disabled as a kid – which tended to give adults the idea that I was intellectually disabled as well. I learned to take any such “well-meaning” advice as a challenge. No sweetheart, level three is too hard for YOU, watch this.

          On the plus side, by the time I was old enough to be underestimated for woman in tech reasons, it legitimately didn’t occur to me to take it seriously – people underestimate me, so what, that’s their problem and has nothing to do with my actual abilities. On the minus side, there were occasions where I bit off way more than I could chew, even though I was warned, because I blew off that advice too!

    2. Jessica*

      Dust bunny has an excellent point. For a higher ed parallel, if you’re a freshman in your first semester of college, we will advise you not to take extremely advanced-level classes, not to take a schedule overload, or not to load up with all classes that are notoriously very difficult. Some first-years could do these things and succeed at them! But you’ve been in college for five minutes and we don’t know you personally, so you’re going to get the generic advice that’ll be a good idea for 95% of people. Likewise, maybe advising Alice to start with an easier project was advice that would’ve been good for the majority of people in her role, and you just didn’t know her well enough to know what a hotshot she was. (On the other hand, you might have suspected it given that women and people of color tend to have to be better to get to the same place.)
      I think the question you’re asking yourself now is great, though, and still worth thinking about whether your advice to Alice was reasonable or not. Alison’s advice about reading books by women of color is excellent, but if you’re not a reader, maybe podcasts? Black Twitter probably has some enlightenment for you.

      1. ferrina*

        The solution is pretty easy-
        “We generally advise people to start with a [simpler thing] because [reasons]. If you do want to start with [harder thing they were asking about], here’s some considerations [point out legit challenges without opining on whether or not they are “ready” for that]”.

        Smart adults will be able to tailor their approach based on their skills. And if they don’t, well, there’s your answer.

      2. Anon for this one*

        This. I can’t help but think the “I recommended Alice do an easier task” part of the question is a distraction. As people have pointed out, there’s better ways to go about it (Ferrina’s phrasing below is great, as is Dust Bunny’s advice about asking questions) and it would be wise for OP to question whether he was acting on any bias when he advised Alice to do X, but, at the end of the day, recommending somebody starts with the easier task because that’s what works out best 95% of the time isn’t an unreasonable thing to do. Obviously, the question is a summary of what happened and of course something might have happened where it should have been obvious the OP that recommending the easier task was not appropriate but I’m not getting that from the question as written.

        To me, the part(s) OP should question are “She didn’t ask the questions I would expect and ultimately ignored me” because it’s quite a stretch in thinking on that to get to “Alice is not bright, talented, a top performer or somebody I would consider an award winner”. Really, all that interaction gives you is a snapshot of information and there’s tons of things that could explain it – I mean, it could even be that Alice ordinarily would have asked all of what OP would consider to be the right questions but she was distracted by something else that was going on in her life. As well as encouraging OP to be more open minded as to “what a talent person is like”, I would also say it’s important not to take a small bit of information and draw it out into a big truth.

        1. Affine Transform*

          recommending somebody starts with the easier task because that’s what works out best 95% of the time isn’t an unreasonable thing to do.

          On the surface, it might appear that way. However, there is a clear gender and race divide on who gets that recommendation and who doesn’t. If it’s so reasonable, why aren’t white men advised to “start easy” at the same rate that women and PoC are?

          Not to mention that advise that might work out 95% on the time (uh, who measured this? and how?) for creating a university course plan is not going to work out the same way for choosing problems to solve at the level that prizes are being given out at engineering conferences.

          1. Anon for this one*

            The problem is though, all we’ve really got to judge is the surface. As said, it would be wise for OP to reflect on why he recommended Alice the easier task, why it didn’t occur to him that the generic advice here was wrong*, whether it was inappropriate to tell her to do the easier task and what bias may have been relevant to that part of the interaction. But, as the question is written, it’s not that part of the interaction that’s making me go “Oh no no no!”. It’s the next part about the follow up questions, which I would argue is an extremely narrow indicator of success.

            * I’m actually willing to bet the answer to this is “because she didn’t ask the ‘right’ follow up questions” which is neither helpful nor fair to Alice.

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      Yes. This is what was bothering me that I couldn’t put my finger on.

      If indeed Alice asked about x and OP said no no do y first its easier, OP needs to examine why.

      Why did you assume Alice was incapable of tackling X? Why did you decide the questions she asked (or didn’t) were not in line with what you think technically capable persons ask? Did you asked Alice any questions?

      OP, you really need to turn a critical eye to your interactions with Alice and others that you’ve dismissed as less capable and poke through the whys. And sometimes the very uncomfortable answer you land on may be because they are female, young, not white, etc etc.

      First step to learning how to id other way people are smart is to id why you don’t think they are in the first place.

  8. Jane Bingley*

    LW1: I find the CliftonStrengths tool a great way to understand yourself and others better, and to see the ways their strengths counterbalance your own.

    My lowest ranking strength is Adaptability, which is a mindset that life is inherently unpredictable and it’s not helpful to constantly plan for a changing future; high Adaptability people tend to go with the flow, think on the spot, and enjoy change and unpredictable surprises.

    To be frank, before completing my CS, I considered people high in Adaptability to be broken or flawed. It’s so utterly counter to the way I see that world that I assumed they simply weren’t smart or talented enough to be good. Post-CS, I see this as a strength, and I recognize that because it’s a strength I don’t have, I need adaptable team members around me if we want to be high-functioning.

    It’s a tool that’s helped our organization be deliberate about building diverse teams, and has helped us spot gaps in the way we work and fill those gaps with thoughtfully chosen new hires.

    1. NewJobNewGal*

      I was so paranoid of being labeled with ‘girly’ strengths that I threw the test. Being a woman in tech, it would have been even more devastating to be labeled with empathy, communication, or harmony. Ugh.
      I looked up the categories and answered the questions for Analytical, Futurist, and Strategic because they were most in alignment with my role.

      1. Chilipepper Attitude*

        I mean, that is smart! I think Alison recently gave the advice to do something similar when decisions were going to be based on the test/skills.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        Ironically, I think that my “feminine” traits are what make me stand out as great at my tech job. We all know how to code, but my code is more readable because I’m a good writer. We all meet with end-users to get feedback, but my empathy makes it easier for me to tell which of the issues is causing the most pain and should be prioritized. We all communicate about projects, but because I’m a good communicator I keep everyone on the same page.

        (Pretty much every strengths/personality test I’ve taken plops me right in the middle, and that can be it’s own advantage.)

        1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          Same, honestly. Coding isn’t a big part of my role, but writing project plans is, as is communicating impact to the rest of the org. I ask questions because I want to make sure that I understand what I’m doing, which both means that I’m more likely to be solving the right problem (and perhaps finding a better solution than what the user initially asked for) and also that the user feels heard. People think I’m very responsive because I feel bad if I leave them hanging for days and days without an update.

  9. MsM*

    LW2: In the spirit of being direct, I suspect you might also need to define exactly what constitutes an “emergency.”

  10. Random Dice*

    Thanks for asking this question!

    I’m not a man, but I’m white, and very much need to do this same kind of self-examination.

    I think the most important thing is to let go of the idea that “I’m a good person, so can’t possibly be racist / sexist / homophobic / etc”. Yes, we good people can and do – we didn’t ask to be raised in a toxic cultural soup, but we do need to do what we can to improve it.

    1. Web Crawler*

      +1 to this. Tbh, I’d rather interact with a non-violent transphobe than a person who’s being transphobic but refuses to believe it because they see themselves as a good person. It’s frustrating to constantly explain “yes, you’re a good person overall, but you’re still hurting me and still need to change your behavior”.

      1. Ally McBeal*

        I read something a few years ago to the effect of (in the context of racism, not transphobia, but it applies broadly to bigotry) “we are taught as very young children that racism=bad and racists=bad people, but that leads to the logical fallacy of ‘I am a good person, so I cannot possibly be racist’ and the inherent denial that follows.”

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Add to that “I am a good person because my parents taught me to be good, so they must be good and their parents must have been good too” and you get very quickly to “Yes, my ancestors owned slaves, but they must have been *nice* slave owners.”

          (Even in high school, I knew that there was something really weird about qualifying for a scholarship because one of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. Like, why would that be something to be proud of or rewarded for?)

    2. Chirpy*

      I’m also going to second Alison’s suggestion to read more books by authors not from your same demographic. I thought I’d read a wide range of sci-fi, but Kindred by Octavia Butler and Everfair by Nisi Shawl were very different perspectives than I’d ever considered, or even knew existed. Both are great books.

      1. Ally McBeal*

        Speaking of sci-fi/fantasy from non-white authors, I’ve never read ANYTHING like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. I’ve been a voracious reader since age 5, and ~30 years later I feel confident in saying it was the most technically complex fiction I’ve ever encountered that was still thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable.

      2. Miss V*

        I’ve maintained that one of the most pivotal books I’ve ever read was Carrie Fisher’s ‘Postcards From the Edge.’

        Truthfully I was probably a little too young for it given the content (I had lax parents), but it was the first time I realized not everyone’s brain works the same. Which sounds obvious to say, but I was in fifth grade and this was my first exposure to the idea that some people have not just external experiences that differ from mine, but internal ones too.

        Which is a long winded way to say, thirding Allison’s suggestion to read more books by people who are different from you.

    3. MigraineMonth*

      One of the funny things about unconscious bias is that it’s not rational, so you can use tricks to get around it.

      For example, after an interview write up notes using non-gendered language (“The candidate spent several minutes asking questions to ensure they understood the problem”). Even though you know the candidate’s gender, using non-gendered language helps you evaluate with less bias.

      Avoid making snap-judgements and using vague criteria. If you’re looking for “culture fit”, does that mean you’re looking for people without family responsibilities who are good at video games, or people with technical skill in [x] area and a willingness to fail several times before succeeding? Once you have the criteria, look at them with a critical eye to see who you’re leaving out.

      Finally, don’t just consider this when you’re evaluating people different from yourself. Giving the benefit of the doubt or special opportunities to people who are like you causes just as much disparity as putting roadblocks in the way of people who are different.

  11. Affine Transform*

    I recommended she not work initially on the hard problem she was successful at, but instead start on an easier problem before tackling the hard one.

    She listened to my advice, but didn’t ask any of the questions I normally see as markers of really good technical abilities.

    If I had to guess, I’d say it’s bc she was asking questions to be polite bc being told to work an easier problem is, and I could soften this but am choosing not to, garbage advice. Women and people of color are frequently told by white men to choose an easier problem.

    I know this is an old question, and the original asker probably won’t benefit. To other people who are in a similar position, research the differences between what members of historically underrepresented groups typically hear and what straight white guys typically hear. Do this even if you yourself are part of a historically underrepresented group bc even we are subject to the biases of the culture around us. Identify what those biases are so that you can tell when you might be exhibiting one. Once you know that, say, women and people of color are frequently told to pick an easier problem, if you are tempted to give that advice to a woman or a Black person, step back and ask yourself whether that’s really right for this individual. Even if this particular young woman was underestimating the scope of the problem she had chosen, why would the advice be, “pick something easier,” instead of, “here are the things I didn’t hear in your plan, be sure you account for them, here is a resource”?

    1. Curious*

      It is a self fulfilling prophesy that way. Women and people of color solve an easier problem and that becomes “proof” they couldn’t solve the harder problem because if they could have solved the harder problem they would have solved it or at least they would have argued with me when I said they shouldn’t try to solve the harder problem. See, my logic couldn’t be flawed! (Sarcasm seems misread often, so please note, that’s sarcasm.)

    2. This Old House*

      Not to mention that if Alice was able to succeed so well on the harder problem, she might just . . . not have had any questions about the easier one? Either because it was too easy for her to have questions about, or because she knew she wasn’t going to listen to LW’s advice, and why would she have good, insightful questions about a project she wasn’t planning to be involved with?

  12. Ellen Ripley*

    I’ve been in a similar position to Alice. I was advised not to take a certain math class with a certain professor because “it’d be too challenging” for me. It made the “A” I got in the class even more tasty :) But seriously OP1, she probably will remember you for underestimating her. Glad you’re looking to improve though!

    1. snailsharkk*

      Same. I’m a woman who was heavily encouraged not to take the intro math class in undergrad because it’s “intended for those who want to go into more technical fields”. I majored in mathematics and have a PhD in theoretical mathematics.

    2. ScruffyInternHerder*

      Similarly, was informed by a year 10 teacher that “girls just don’t do as well in this math class”.

      Okay, watch me, you fool….my tablemate (also a girl, as we were both under 18 at the time) and I proceeded to set the curve.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I think that as a culture we really underestimate the motivational power of spite. It’s just so… driving.

        1. Mantis shrimp*

          Yeah. My kid is getting a spite undergrad in physics. I kinda wish she’d choose math, because she clearly *loves* math more, but physics makes her angry. So, apparently that’s motivating.

      2. I have RBF*

        In 7th grade they put me in bonehead math because my grades hadn’t transferred when we moved. I was bored silly.

        When it came to recommending the next year, the instructor said he could only recommend me for advanced math, not algebra, which was the AP course. I wanted algebra. My mom went to bat for me with the admin, who warned me that I would do badly and be stuck with the bad grades if I tried the “harder” class.

        I got an A.

        I dropped out of college for lack of money, not lack of intelligence.

    3. Affine Transform*

      Yep. I was a female Physics major, and a professor told me that if I was having trouble with the material in my first semester class, then Physics probably wasn’t for me. I completed the BS and got two graduate degrees. He’s probably dead now, and I’m not sorry.

      1. Ellen Ripley*

        Physics grad high-five! And good riddance to him and the other doubters out there.

    4. Web Crawler*

      Same. Except I didn’t end up taking the class, because it was high school and I believed the teacher that coding would be too hard for me. Luckily I picked it up (easily) in college instead

      1. Ellen Ripley*

        Nice! So glad you still followed through with coding. It’s frustrating that discouragement was there at all though…

    5. My Useless 2 Cents*

      My threshold for correcting misassumptions is very low. If I ask someone for advice and they started spouting off about starting at the bottom and working my way up. I’d just thank them for their time. Truthfully 9 times out of 10 I’d just assume they are full of hot air and move on.

      1. maringe*

        That’s kind of harsh. I mean, does the person know you and your capabilities? Isn’t it at least sometimes smarter to start at the beginning?

        That’s not “hot air.” They’re doing what they think they should. People aren’t mind-readers; I’d be grateful that they took the time to talk with me, take what I need, disregard what I don’t, and politely move on.

        It’s not difficult or complicated, nor is it necessary to scorn them.

        1. Web Crawler*

          If person you’re talking to is uniquely positioned to help, then I’d agree with you. But in reality, we’re all humans with limited time and energy. It takes an exhausting amount of energy to politely fight the biases of people who are primed not to believe you. 9 times out of 10, you get better help anyway by moving on and finding support in a person who’s capable of being supportive. And then you can use all that energy to actually do the technical work, which is what you’re paid to do.

          Side note- this is why allies are so important

        2. Irish Teacher.*

          I really think it depends on the question. Sure, if I’m asking how to start a career in a new field and somebody recommends I start at the bottom, that’s valid advice, but if…well, I’ll give an example from early in my career. My first year teaching, I asked another teacher how long the Christmas tests were so I knew how long to make the test and she replied that I should just ask one of the other history teachers teaching the same year to let me copy their test instead of trying to make one out myself.

          Sure, she didn’t know my capabilities and whether I was capable of making out an appropriate test, but that wasn’t even what I was asking. Even if a child asked you to help them make a fish out of Lego, it would be pretty insulting to say, “that would be too hard for somebody your age. Try making a house instead.”

          For a lot of questions, you don’t need to know a person’s capabilities to answer what they actually asked.

        3. Nina*

          If it’s a job-helpy or career kind of fair, would I rather spend my (limited!) time in a room with people who are further ahead in their careers and can help me:
          a) talking to the buffoon who barely met me before he started suggesting I do a less challenging project than the one I’ve already made pretty clear I intend to do or
          b) seeking out the people who will accept that since I’m at this technical conference with this prize, I’m probably capable of having a shot at the more challenging project that will get me the prize, and actually help me rather than condescend to me?

        4. Ginger Cat Lady*

          When you’re a woman, and men keep telling you to stick to the basics and the easy stuff, you DO tend to dismiss those blow hards and their sexist advice. You have to if you want to succeed.
          There’s no indication that Alice was a beginner. Just that he didn’t think she was up to the task. She could very well be an engineer with a 5-10 years of experience, and an engineer with 2 decades of experience could still view her as “young”
          And recognizing sexist patronizing advice is not overly harsh. It’s just exactly as harsh as the “advice” we get.

        5. lucanus cervus*

          People aren’t mind-readers, but they think they are. What LW needed to do was take a moment, remember that he doesn’t know anything about this woman, and find out why she wants to tackle this more advanced project rather than assuming it’s too much for her.

      2. Helewise*

        Exactly this. It doesn’t take most of us too long to figure out when it’s not worth wasting our breath (almost always). This is why there weren’t follow-up questions.

      3. lucanus cervus*

        Yeah, I am not going to put myself through the utter frustration of trying to convince someone of my abilities. If that person has taken a look at me and decided what I’m capable of based on that, rather than recognising how little they know about me and trying to find out what I can do, then I’m just not exposing myself to more of the same. I’ll get advice elsewhere.

        LW, honestly, my only advice is to stop thinking that you can divine a person’s capabilities based on traits or or by ascribing significance to small behaviours. Just ask. Don’t come in thinking you already know. Find out the person’s background, find out where they’re at.

    6. ChemistbyDay*

      I was told by my high school guidance counselor that I should think about becoming a teacher or a nurse (this was his response when I told him I wanted to major in the sciences). Got accepted to school to major in Chemistry, with zero help from Guidance. Good riddance.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        My friends and I (all top students in high school) used to compare notes after any of us met with our high school guidance counselor.

        It was sad and shocking to realize that 100% of the advice, no matter our individual strengths and interest was:

        Boys – go to this really good school and major in engineering
        Girls – go to this okay local school and major in nursing

        We didn’t really spend much time in the guidance office after that.

    7. learnedthehardway*

      My brother-in-law was advised not to do the science degree he did, because of his dyslexia/disgraphia. Well, that was like putting red in front of a bull, so OF COURSE he did that degree, and passed with flying colours.

  13. soontoberetired*

    I, btw, happily take the last cookie. Someone else can have the last piece of cake.

    1. Random Dice*

      I’ve heard this described as a regional unwritten rule but forget which region (s). Midwest US maybe?

    1. MigraineMonth*

      As an East-coast transplant to the Midwest, I consider eating the last cookie/donut fragment to be one of the services I offer (in addition to being willing to start the buffet line, to state a preference in which restaurant we go to and to be the first to hang up after the third round of goodbyes).

      1. Ally McBeal*

        Lordy. I was born in the Midwest to Midwest-born parents, so that awkward dance is so familiar… but I spent 15 years in the South learning the power of “bless your heart” and then a decade in NYC learning to be confidently assertive, so now that I’m back in the Midwest I’m seen as a “leader” because I’m willing to take charge when everyone else is just staring at each other politely.

        I still slap my knees, say “welp” and take too long to leave at the end of the night, though.

    2. White rabbit*

      Me, too! Maybe I need to add that to my resume, since it’s such a rare and sought-after skill :)

    3. t-vex*

      Not me, but it has nothing to do with politeness – I always assume there’s something wrong with it!

  14. Michelle Smith*

    LW4: For the life of me, I can’t remember which companies/foundations did this, but there were a couple I was interested in that didn’t have the exact right role posted for what I had an interest/talent for. They had an explicitly labeled opportunity for people like me to submit their resume to go into a pool of people who might be matched to future opportunities. I still don’t think that was very productive (I certainly never got contacted based on submitting my resume to a non-job posting), but at least it was honest and allowed me to understand what purpose my resume was being collected for. If you’re going to collect people’s resumes without real jobs behind the posts, you really need to do it that way.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      Just found an example of what I’m talking about. I don’t know if I’m allowed to link to it, but it basically says “If you do not find a current open opportunity that fits your skills, please register your interest in future opportunities” and then gives you an opportunity to submit your resume, personal information (education, certification, area of interest, etc.), and an optional cover letter.

    2. Essess*

      I know that I got one of my jobs from a resume pool like that. There was a local employer (that employed several thousand people) that would let you apply to a general category of work and when they had openings they would pull resumes from that pool that matched the qualifications they needed. It was a little over a year after I put my resume in before I got a call but I did get a job and worked there for many years.

      1. Chloe*

        This happened to me with a local 24/7 veterinary hospital for a CSR position. I left reviews on Indeed and Glassdoor and several on Google (under different names) that described the same situation as the office manager “crying” that the hiring manager would be coming back from maternity leave to an empty staff, asked me to tell me about myself, and asked me how my then-current job’s office culture was like. The OM never explained to me about the role, even when I asked questions. I was supposed to get an e-mail the following week when the supposed hiring manager returned from maternity leave whether or not I’d be hired for the job (which is strange because the “hiring manager” never interviewed me nor did the office manager say that the hiring manager would plan to interview me. Why would the hiring manager want to hire someone that she didn’t interview and only has the office manager’s words to go by?).
        The following week I received an e-mail that stated that the job was already filled prior to the job posting, which means that there was no job at all. This same woman would then repost this same CSR position every 30-40 days on Indeed (also, I even wonder if there really was a “hiring manager” out and returning from maternity leave at all). This was before Covid, around 2019. During Covid, the owner started replying to reviews on Google but didn’t answer my three (under different names) one-star reviews complaining about the hiring process and the position already being filled prior to the job posting. Shortly later, like a week or so, I notice all the job postings for this position on Indeed stopped appearing and being posted. As of now, there are no constant repostings of this CSR position. The job is only posted every now and then. I’m sure the owner of the business talked to the office manager because this reposting stopped.

    3. AnnieB*

      It’s quite common in my field for companies to solicit for applications to go on a panel for any jobs that may arise in the future. I absolutely hate it because you’re asking them to do a ton of labour when who knows if there’ll ever be a job, but when I am hiring in the area (as I expect to be soon) I’m thinking just ask people to throw in a resume so it’s minimal effort on their part, but we know who’s out there.

  15. Emily*

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that you’re going to be able to pick up on how talented someone is from one conversation like that! That’s a very high bar to set for yourself. The important part is that when you’re doing hiring or other kinds of selection, you have a standardized process that directly ties to the outcomes you’re looking for. But it sounds like that happened here!

    1. Usagi*

      This is a good point, I think one thing that’s important is to not get invested in the idea of yourself as someone who’s great at spotting how talented other people are quickly or from surface things like what questions they ask in one conversation. Wrapping your identity in the idea that you have some kind of sixth sense about this is a great way to become bad at it and resistant to improvement.

    2. bamcheeks*

      It’s not unreasonable, but it is a *skill* that LW obviously hasn’t developed. You ask open questions, you listen to the answers, you push them on particular areas, and then you make a judgment. Good teachers and coaches can do this in quite short conversations. But you have to listen!

  16. PunkArseLibrarian*

    I have yet to go over to Inc yet, but just wanted to say that I will HAPPILY eat the last cookie, and should anyone need such services, just let me know! ;)

    1. AngryOctopus*

      Honestly, that’s the biggest reason people DON’T take the last [whatever]. Because if they did, they’d have to clean up (or know someone would make them feel guilty for not doing so).
      I’ll take the last whatever and also clean up, and also not feel any guilt. If you won’t take a cookie because you don’t want to rinse a plate, I’m happy to do so :)

    2. maelen*

      I grew up in the midwest but spent most of my working life in a California-based tech company with a very mixed workforce. Generally, the last food item is taken, but very often the empty, disposable container is left. A waste basket is never far away.

  17. Usagi*

    Problem with the last letter is that TONS of companies do that, advertise fake job openings, and the fact that those don’t get filled gets used in BS “nobody wants to work” style articles. When in reality, this is more like a light/gentle fraud on the part of the company. Not illegal, but still a lie. Like the LaCroix of frauds- just a whiff of that fraudy flavor.

  18. anone*


    As someone who was singled out as “bright” from a young age, the thing I wish more than anything is that every single one of my peers, including me, were not scanned for who the “bright people” were. It harmed all of us in different ways. I had friends who were overlooked and dismissed and became convinced they couldn’t do anything and would never be smart (they’re all brilliant in their own way), because their brilliance didn’t manifest in socially-prescribed ways. Mine did and I got the support and opportunities that came with being identified as “bright”, but at the cost of having all of my struggles overlooked and minimized and my sense of self reduced to what I could accomplish. Instead I wish that instead of perpetuating the idea that there’s “special people” in the world who need to be identified and streamed into something for the benefit of whoever wants to get the most out of their labour (the “gifted kid to burned-out adult” pipeline), and everyone else is chaff to be thrown away, what if we just recognized that everyone’s got their own potential and everyone’s potential can be realized in the right context.

    My question to you is, why do you want to “spot bright people”? What’s your agenda? What do you actually need? What is your mission here?

    1. lost academic*

      I think this one is a bit self explanatory from the LW. The LW thought he could generally spot bright people and when spotting them, would give them different recommendations based on that rating. He realizes he didn’t spot the brightest person even with a 1:1 interaction and is very wisely questioning what it is he might have been doing wrong to have made a big miss like this so it doesn’t happen again, because his advice was frankly bad and clearly he could have given better advice or maybe just different advice if he’d seen it. Based on what he said his role was, spotting bright people allows them to be given opportunities to apply abilities towards this common interest and overall increases achievement. He still gave advice but it was tailored more towards an assumption about the ability of that person and I expect intended to be achievable given that assumption. We want to push everyone to achieve the most that they can and want to, but not everyone should get the same advice to progress because everyone is coming from a different place.

      1. anone*

        My point is there’s no such thing as “the brightest people”. Only “the brightest people by my personal definition of what it means to be bright”, which will de facto not be “the brightest people” because that’s not a universal condition. When you say, “We want to push everyone to achieve the most that they can and want to” my question again is, why? That’s a very specific worldview/cultural bias, not a universal good. What if people achieved what they figured out how to achieve in relation to what felt right and possible at the time, guided by what matters to them, and we never know if it was “the most” they could have achieved? Why this desire to optimize all things? Life doesn’t have to be optimal to be good.

        If LW had approached Alice with an open and curious mind, ready to meet her as person as she is, learn about her by listening and talking to her, and see if he happened to have anything to offer her, rather than “efficiently” scanning her for characteristics to fit her into a prescribed box in his head that he could then tailor to an optimized pathway, he might answer his own question. Why does he need to identify “the bright people” when he could learn to recognize the brightness in people? Don’t just build a better box–question the box.

    2. Hall*

      Thank you for articulating this so well. I had a similar experience growing up. “Bright” might be a good trait (if you can even call it a single trait) but it’s just one of many.

    3. CommanderBanana*

      Ugh, this. My sibling was brilliant but did terribly in school because if something didn’t interest him, he didn’t bother engaging with it. I was not as smart or talented, but I was a grind and did well in an academic setting. There are SO many different ways to be intelligent (or talented, or creative) not just the ways that work in the incredibly narrow setting of school or college or STEM or whatever.

      Being labeled as bright sucked, because so many adults seems to conflate being bright with being mature, so when I had totally age-appropriate responses to things, adults would be horrified. Like, yes, I may be bright, but I’m still 8, or 12, or 15.

  19. Anon for This*

    OP1 – good that you are asking the question, because you completely demonstrated your bias with Alice. She asked for advice. You immediately discounted her abilities by telling her to work on an easier problem. Then you further dismissed her because she didn’t ask you – the person who just told her she couldn’t tackle the hard problem – good questions. Why on earth would she ask any questions at all in those circumstances?

    First: don’t look for yourself in the people you are meeting. Because then you will only find and appreciate the people who are just. like. you.

    Second: She asked you for advice. That itself should make you take notice. A lot of people who think they are really good never ask for advice (unless it is in an obsequious, sucking-up manner) .

    Third: What skills do you lack? Look for those skills in people, rather than comparing their abilities to yours in your skill set.

    Fourth: Don’t stereotype or assume based on physical characteristics. Women can be great at STEM. Big rugby-player-looking guys can be perceptive and sensitive to nuance. Etc.

  20. maringe*

    I don’t think OP is looking for bright people in general. Seems to me she instead thought she didn’t realize Alice’s brightness specifically, whatever that is.

    That’s not the same as “Where are all the bright people?” so I think you can rest assured that there’s no top-down agenda.

    1. popko*

      I’m confused by this response. The LW’s question verbatim was “My question, then, is how can I improve my “spot bright people” skills?”, so he pretty clearly is looking for bright people in general? And specifically states that he’s a man, and specifically states that he’s worried that only viewing people through his Western male lens could be making him overlook talent in other kinds of people… If that’s the “top-down agenda” you’re talking about it, the LW himself was the first person to bring it up.

  21. Irish Teacher.*

    LW1, I firstly want to compliment you for realising you underestimated Alice, considering whether it could indicate bias on your part and looking for ways to change that. A lot of people would not be willing to do that.

    As has been said above, I don’t really think there are any “tells” that will indicate competence just from talking to people and I really don’t think you can judge it from the questions people ask, for a number of reasons. Some people are shy or lack confidence, cultures differ with some valuing self-confidence and others feeling that it looks like showing off and is to be discouraged, people may have poor previous experiences, some people need more time to formulate the correct questions, some people don’t have English as their first language (I have occasionally been interviewed in Irish and while I speak Irish fairly well, it’s hard to concentrate both on the topic, when it’s a work one, AND on the language) and so on.

    Personally, I would say the best indication of a person’s ability is their past work. If you don’t work closely with somebody, I’d say talk to those who do, particularly their direct supervisor.

    And I’d also think that it’s worth sometimes, just being aware you don’t know. If you hadn’t seen any examples of Alice’s work, hadn’t worked closely with her and hadn’t discussed her in detail with those who did work more closely with her, then you probably weren’t in much position to make a judgement and given that Alice disregarded what you said, it doesn’t sound like this was a situation where she needed your opinion. That sounds harsher than I mean it, especially as she asked for your advice, but you could probably have redirected her to her supervisor or given advice like, “you’d need experience in X to do that. How confident are you with X?” or restricted yourself to advice on how to do the project rather than whether she should do it.

    A trick I use in parent-teacher meetings and that I think would work here too is to make use of questions. Like if somebody asked “do you think I’m skilled enough to attempt X?” rather than saying “yes” or “no,” based on your best guess of how skilled they appear from a conversation, try guiding them to figure out the answer themselves, for example by asking them, “are you comfortable with y?”

    I don’t really think there is any way to accurately guess skill in a conversation like that so I think the real answer is to simply work on the premise you don’t know and advise them without any assumptions as to their skill level.

    I do realise this gets trickier with interviews though when you often only have the conversation to go on and presumably references.

    1. Sloanicota*

      “LW1, I firstly want to compliment you for realising you underestimated Alice, considering whether it could indicate bias on your part and looking for ways to change that. A lot of people would not be willing to do that.” – so true. I know many people who would assume that someone must have helped Alice or that she was cheating/lying somehow, so strong is the bias in favor of our own ego. We can actually shift reality to ensure we are always right; it is much harder to and rarer to both admit you were wrong and try to learn how not to make the same mistake in future.

  22. Lorax*

    I’m a woman who has spent the entirety of her academic and professional career in male-dominated spaces, so the scenario laid out by LW1 made me physically cringe. It’s WAY too common to underestimate people who are different from you demographically, so I’m glad the letter writer has identified this as a problem and is interested in tackling it! At the very, VERY least, I hope the letter writer learns to ask more questions of people before jumping to conclusions about their abilities. Get curious! Don’t shoot people down right away! Ask yourself why you assume they can’t do it! Get excited for the possibility that they can do it, and ask them about their ideas/plans/support needs instead.

    More generally, if you want to get better at identifying talent, you have to do more work on your end. Right now it sounds like you’re passively waiting for candidates/colleagues to impress you — ask the right questions, take the right initiative, demonstrate the right ineffable traits, etc. But by doing that, you’re implicitly rewarding people who feel the most comfortable in your shared professional space and who have benefited most from previous (formal or informal) mentoring and exposure to your profession’s professional norms. In my experience, this usually means implicitly advantaging middle class and upper middle class white men. These folks tend to have more opportunities to learn how to talk-the-talk from seeing other people like them do it first hand. Layer on top of that the fact that our culture still, to this day, tends to reward men more than women for traits like confidence, assertiveness, initiative, outspokenness, etc. Because of that (1) women can feel less empowered to speak up and ask the questions you’re looking for and (2) be dismissed more often when they do speak up or ask questions.

    Also, as a side note, I have found that there are A LOT of white men who feel really confident in talking the talk without being able to walk the walk. Saying the right words and asking the right questions definitely does not always correlate to brilliance or ability. Look at literally any VC failure or crypto scam in the last decade. (Though, caveat, kudos to Liz Holmes for breaking that bullshit-spinning glass ceiling). I was the only woman philosophy major at my college during my time there, so I feel like I basically spent four years in a master class of overconfident white guys throwing big words around and asking supposedly deep questions without ever having a single unique or relevant idea. I’ve also literally been advised by white men that I need to “fake it till I make it” and “lie with confidence.” All those guys? In positions of power they shouldn’t have.

    Now, that’s not to say that asking good questions isn’t a valuable trait or something women shouldn’t work on cultivating. It’s just an acknowledgement that the “asking good questions” trait itself is subject to unequal cultural norms and biases currently, so you have to adjust for that by asking more questions yourself, probing deeper, and looking at more concrete things like previous work products and academic performance.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      “I’ve also literally been advised by white men that I need to “fake it till I make it” and “lie with confidence.” All those guys? In positions of power they shouldn’t have.”

      I am constantly amazed at how many white guys I meet who failed upwards with exactly that same combination of bro-y confidence and overweening arrogance. Chris Licht, anyone?

    2. Nom*

      This is excellent “More generally, if you want to get better at identifying talent, you have to do more work on your end. Right now it sounds like you’re passively waiting for candidates/colleagues to impress you — ask the right questions, take the right initiative, demonstrate the right ineffable traits, etc. But by doing that, you’re implicitly rewarding people who feel the most comfortable in your shared professional space and who have benefited most from previous (formal or informal) mentoring and exposure to your profession’s professional norms.”

  23. Anna Badger*

    After nearly 7 years in an accidental career in global edtech, my take on #1 is that you have two options:

    1) develop a deep understanding of all the ways evidence of talent can be affected by sociocultural norms (including but not limited to: how is an individual socialised to talk to those with power over them? what are their inherited norms about expressing a thought they’re unsure of? what if any penalty are they expecting if they express an incorrect thought or one that a person in authority might disagree with? how are resources distributed across your pool? how appropriate is this subject considered for an individual within their communities? what are they risking or putting aside to be here? what outside factors are hindering their ability to be here?)

    2) ditch all of your individual need to “spot” talent. lower the barriers to entry, distribute resources equitably (including your time and attention, and being very explicit about what resources there are – I’m thinking here about things like first gen students being less likely to attend office hours because they’re less likely to know the resource is available or what usage of it is considered appropriate), and seeing who achieves what.

    like, Alice clearly didn’t need you to spot her, but you could think about what you would have done if you *had* spotted her, and get that support to as many people as you can, without bringing your own biases into it.

    1. Joron Twiner*

      Great response. Especially #2. It would be even better if talented students didn’t need to be spotted by OP (as well-meaning as he is!) in order to be recognized for their talent!

  24. CheeryO*

    The first question hits a nerve as a quieter woman in a male-dominated STEM field. I have seen way too much white dude bias over the years, and it really comes down to assigning too much weight to the ability to perform a really specific kind of bro-y confidence. (And yes, women can be guilty of this too, thanks to internalized misogyny.)

    “Asking the right questions” is a REALLY specific and close-minded way to define “brightness.” Maybe Alice is someone who needs to digest information and come up with questions at her own pace. Women are way more likely than men to wait until they have all the information before asking a question, rather than risk looking uninformed. Or… maybe Alice is even smarter than you’re giving her credit for and didn’t need to ask the “good” questions to know where to go with whatever it was.

    Honestly, this just comes down to having a little humility and being willing to recognize that there are plenty of smart people out there that don’t look or act like you. Do the work, take a step back, and really evaluate people based on whatever tangible, concrete information you have, not fuzzy gut feelings about who fits the mold you created in your head.

  25. The Taking of Official Notice*

    I wonder if OP1 preemptively shut down Alice before she had a chance to get a word in.

  26. Irish Teacher.*

    The CEO in LW4 may be shooting a bit of an own goal. I know I am always suspicious of schools that are constantly recruiting because my immediate thought is “why is their turnover so high?” In one case, I found out later I was being unfair and the school was genuinely growing, so I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that sometimes too much recruiting can make people wonder if everybody is leaving and if so, why?

  27. Nom*

    LW1 – it’s a little bit hard to tell from the letter what questions LW was expecting to receive from Alice, so I may be misinterpreting the situation. But, it seems to me that *not* asking questions could be a sign of greater intelligence… because they already know the answer.

    1. ceiswyn*

      Speaking as a ‘bright’ woman, the reason I rarely ask questions is that a) I usually don’t need to; I either know everything I need, or can look it up, and b) it is SO DARNED HARD to get anyone to actually answer the question I asked, rather than a much easier one that uses some of the same words.

      I have had so many interactions along the lines of:
      “So if you’re combining X and Y, do you still need to Z?”
      “If you want to do X, yes you need to Z because lengthy explanation.”
      “Yes, I know, but when you’re doing Y as well, do you still need to Z?”
      “If you’re doing Y, you still need to Z because similar lengthy explanation.”
      “Yes yes, but if you’re combining both Y and X, can you get away without Z because technical explanation of how Y and X each supply a partial Z?”
      “…oh. I never thought about it like that. I’ve no idea. I guess try it and see.”

      If asking questions almost always results in a long, painful and pointless interaction and no useful answers, why would you ever ask?

  28. Anon in Canada*

    I think Alison is right that the resumes received by company #4 probably won’t ever be viewed – when a real opening crops up, they’ll probably advertise it separately and hire from that process! Building a “candidate bank” like this and not using it just wastes everyone’s time – and makes people wonder why that company has such high turnover (even if they don’t).

  29. handfulofbees*

    LW1 this is a good damn question. Really shows some self awareness that many people never bother to cultivate. I hope since this was written that LW1 has grown in their ways of assessing people!

  30. No no no all the way home*

    When I see small or mid-size companies that keep running ads for a position I’m interested in, instead of assuming they’re growing, I’m more likely to assume they must have incredibly high turnover and it must be an awful place to work.

  31. We went to the moon because it's hard*

    This is easy. Stop encouraging people to achieve only incremental goals. Encourage people to shoot for big goals. Stop the soft bigotry of low expectations. Stop telling people to “stay in their lane.”

  32. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP4 (advertising jobs that are not actually open) – the other downside of this is that after a while the company will have exhausted its “catchment area” of good candidates if they ever do decide to recruit for that role (or a related one) for real. And then they will be crying that they can’t find any good candidates.

Comments are closed.