Hexbyte Glen Cove
Women applying to jobs in male-dominated fields often try to overcome sexism by altering their cover letters to sound less feminine. But that practice might actually be hurting their chances of landing a job, a new study out of U of T Mississauga reveals.
Examining real cover letters to a variety of actual jobs and analyzing applications to an MBA program, Joyce He, a Ph.D. candidate at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, found that women applying for jobs in male-dominated fields would respond to anticipated bias by using less feminine language to deliberately manage gender impressions. While they did not use more masculine language, they did try to conceal their femininity.
That would mean avoiding words that are stereotypically associated with women, which include sensitive, interpersonal, empathetic, helpful, warm and friendly. Examples of words that people associate with masculinity, meanwhile, include competitive, ambitious, confident, outspoken and entrepreneurial.
Notably, words identified as masculine hold higher value in the business world. That’s why associations are made with respect to gender and probability of success, says Sonia Kang, an associate professor at U of T Mississauga’s Department of Management and co-author of the study published in Academy of Management.
“When we see those kinds of words, it’s a cue not only to the fact that this is going to be a man, but also this person is going to be better suited to this particular position,” explains Kang. “That’s why language in all these application materials is so important. They cue to more than just identity.”
He adds that research suggests women’s identity is devalued when they apply for male-dominated jobs and they tend to anticipate discrimination or bias in the selection process.
“They need to hide the devalued part, the feminine side, which is why they use this strategy,” she says, adding that men do not engage in the same behavior when applying for female-dominated roles.
But these attempts by women applicants to manage gender impressions can actually backfire because they clash with deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes.
He explains that there’s an unspoken rule regarding how men and women should act. “Men should behave competitively and dominantly, and women should behave more friendly and communal,” she says. “When you go against the rules or expectations, women especially can receive this backlash or penalty.”
She notes that women who behave counter-stereotypically are seen as more competent but also less likable, which in turn means they are less likely to be hired or even promoted.
This is related to the double-bind women face, Kang continues. She explains that stereotypes suggest men should be in charge because they’re assertive and decisive and get things done. When women take on that role, they’re seen as competent but are less likely to be liked. At the same time, women contend with the stereotype that they should be more nurturing and communal. When women act in line with those gendered stereotypes, they end up being liked but are seen as less competent.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Kang says, adding men don’t have to navigate the same no-win situation. “If (men) are super confident, people don’t care if they’re likable.”
He says that the onus shouldn’t be on women (or minorities) to try to navigate the different biases in the labor market. The onus should be on organizations to reduce bias, which is the root of the problem.
He is now shifting her research focus to design interventions that help de-bias the selection process, saying there’s promising new work focused on systemic problems that target the environment, which is a more powerful way to change behavior. That can include anonymized evaluations or reviewing applications in sets instead of individually.
But systemic solutions take a long time to implement and job seekers can’t wait.
Kang suggests women forced to contend with existing biases in the labor market should approach job applications like an experiment and find what works for them and is successful. That might mean changing how different activities are presented or how a person writes about themself.
“The work really shows it doesn’t help to pretend to be something you’re not,” Kang says. “I know it sounds pithy but be yourself is the takeaway here.”
Joyce C. He et al. Covering in Cover Letters: Gender and Self-Presentation in Job Applications, Academy of Management Journal (2020). DOI: 10.5465/amj.2018.1280
Female job seekers using le