Interview Tip: Perceptions of Weakness

Every time I do a mock interview with a client, I ask if there is anything they want to practice answering. Even though I have a prepared list of questions on deck, I want the session to beneficial to the individual, especially if they have had some unsuccessful interviews in the past. The last few times a client has wanted to work on a specific response, it has been surrounded the dreaded inquiry into the negative – “What is your greatest weakness?”

Clients’ fear about this question does not surprise me in the least. It’s a tough one! But once people realize that the interviewer is looking for something that they are working on (aka: assessing self-awareness and self-improvement), the responses get better.

The other day, however, I got a little stumped. My client was a recent alum who was interviewing for tech positions: software development, IT system management, etc. Their resume was on point – computer science major, excellent GPA – and even the cover letter was solid. The client was getting tons of interviews but could never make the conversion. There was a definite sense of desperation in the session.

When the “greatest weakness” question came up the client broke from interview mode and let out a deep sigh. “I can’t answer this question.”
Me (switching back to counselor mode): Why?
Client: Because no matter what, I’m a weakness. Anything I say will confirm that I can’t do the job.
Me: There are ways to answer the question where you show improvement instead of weakness.
Client: That’s not what I mean. I’m a Black woman who wants to work in tech. My identity is the weakness.
Me: Hmm…

As I searched for something uplifting-yet-not-bullshit to say, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my good friend K, a graphic designer who is trying to break into the tech side. She described the frustration of consistently being the only Black woman in meetings, and having her ideas and skillset be harshly evaluated by White men with less experience. While these experiences occur in all industries, tech is especially tough for women because of the ‘bro’ culture that pervades the field. There is a notion that we just won’t be a good “fit”… because fit = penis, obv.

On top of those gender-based biases, Black women also have to contend with assumptions of our intellectual inferiority. In a hard skills based field like tech, what you can do should be what you are judged on, but so often I see women of color passed over even when they have the qualifications for the job. The skillset doesn’t matter because of the identity that is attached to it. Knowing this, I could see my client’s point: Any stated weakness could confirm any assumed weakness, thus making it less likely to get the job.

In the spirit of authenticity that is crucial to my practice, I discussed these realities with my client. If the question is asked, you have to answer it. Everyone needs to work on something, but when you’re up against a negative stereotype, picking the right example is key. If you think they assume you’re dumb, don’t talk about taking a long time to grasp new concepts. If you think they assume you’re lazy, don’t say you take the easy way out. If you think they assume you’re angry, don’t talk about your dislike of authority.

(I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.)

If you’re in a situation like this, be strategic and pick something that the interviewers will relate to. Think about what would resonate with people who do the job you want. My client decided to talk about how she’s working on her ability to speak up when she has ideas, especially in group settings. This works for plenty of fields, but especially in techland where 99% of job descriptions mention wanting candidates who have “an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Working through bias in the job search is tricky. You can’t deny it exists, but you also can’t let it get you down. Preparing for it is the only way you won’t let someone else’s closed mind get in the way of your career.

About

Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.