Women applying to jobs in male-dominated fields often try to overcome sexism by altering their cover letters so they sound less feminine. But that practice may actually be hurting their chances of landing a job, a new University of Toronto study finds.
Examining real cover letters to a variety of actual jobs and analyzing applications to an MBA program, Joyce He, a PhD 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 the female job seekers did not use more masculine language, they did try to conceal their femininity by avoiding words that are stereotypically associated with women, including “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 the Academy of Management Journal.
“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 that this person is going to be better suited to this particular position,” says Kang. “That’s why language in all these application materials is so important. They cue to more than just identity.”
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, according to He.
“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 behaviour when applying for female-dominated roles.
Attempts by female applicants to manage gender impressions can actually backfire because they clash with deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes.
He says 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, according to Kang. She says stereotypes suggest men should be in charge because they’re assertive, 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 that 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 the onus shouldn’t be on women (or minorities for that matter) to try to navigate biases in the labour market. The onus should be on organizations to reduce bias, which is the root of the problem, she says.
He is now shifting her research focus to design interventions that help de-bias the selection process. That could include anonymized evaluations or reviewing applications in sets instead of individually.
But such systemic solutions take a long time to implement and job seekers can’t wait.
Kang says women forced to contend with existing biases in the labour market should approach job applications like an experiment and find what works for them. That might mean changing how different activities are presented or how you present yourself.
“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.”