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The Battle of the Sexes in the Interview Room

July 16, 2018

Who’s better at interviewing: men or women? You’re probably thinking that an article written by a woman would contain a clear cut answer, firmly tilted towards – women. This should be a slam dunk, no-brainer, obvious as can be. Even though I do like clear cut answers to my questions, the answer to this one was a little more slippery than I thought it would be.

I had heard from other practitioners over the years that in their experience, female interrogators do indeed have an advantage. And I went along with this theory, throughout my career, happy to believe this urban legend. Aren’t women indeed more nurturing, more caring, more empathetic, better listeners, more patient, etc.? Or are these just stereotypes?

So I began a search for any scientific studies that would back up my initial thought, that women were indeed more effective interrogators. There exists quite a bit of anecdotal evidence but very little hard science. As I searched, I was astounded at the amount of interview/interrogation material out there that made blanket statements about women interrogators with nothing other than some case examples to back up their theories. My position has now changed to the following: there are so few female interrogators that those who do exist have become successful because they employ those traits aforementioned that make them the most effective. In other words, they are good at what they do because they had to figure out the best way to be successful in a competitive arena, not just because they are women. In a male dominated profession, you can be a mediocre male interrogator – you have the numbers on your side. Further, I posit that if we took a company or government agency and suddenly hired equal amounts of female and male interrogators from a pool of inexperienced candidates and then we gave them the same training, chances are pretty good the perceived effectiveness for both males and females would be similar. Of course this is only my opinion; maybe someone can conduct this experiment… in my lifetime.

In an effort to make this article somewhat believable, since I couldn’t find studies on the topic, I conducted a semi-scientific poll and asked a few people I know, men and women, their opinions on this topic. I was especially interested in hearing from the team at Wicklander-Zulawski: what was the word on the street, so to speak? Did they get a lot of questions about the topic during their seminars or did they themselves observe one population or another to be better or worse at interviewing? Good, straightforward questions, one would think, but the answers were all over the place. I heard quite a few expected responses that women are more empathetic and better listeners. One interesting point was that “people would rather talk to a woman.” There have been some studies around this point; when shown pictures of men or women and asked who they would rather talk to, the study participants chose women over men the majority of the time. This may give the female interviewer an edge at the beginning of an interrogation, but the skills needed to be successful are learned, not decided with a chromosome split.

Some other comments shared were about difficulties female interrogators have; evidently it’s not all confessions all the time for us. “They lack confidence when they interview men.” “Women aren’t raised to be confrontational.” “Male suspects will try to take advantage during an interrogation.” Couldn’t all of these observations apply to any individual regardless of their sex? One thing I’ve noticed during my career is that we all have an Achilles heel that we self-impose. Whether it’s interrogating men, women, minors, elderly, or people of another race, we tend to pick a group and tell ourselves that we have a hard time dealing with them. I had my own early on, and guess what? I overcame it. I believe that this occurs when we have a failure with one interrogation and blame it on the fact that the suspect was A, B or C, instead of looking in the mirror and figuring out what it was that we did wrong. From there it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are countless cultural elements that factor into an interrogator’s confidence; too many to count or go into here, plus none of it is backed by scientific research. They are just things that as a society we believe to be true.

Now before you pound out your letter to the editor, let me finish by saying that, yes, in my experience, female interrogators do have an advantage. But the really interesting question is – why is that? Is it due to their sex or is it due to necessity?

Stefanie is a regular contributor to the work of the International Association of Interviewers. To enjoy other great content from her and other contributors, please visit