What women need to know about writing cover letters

Mask as needed, but don’t hide.
Mask as needed, but don’t hide.
Image: Reuters/ Benoit Tessier
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As people quit their jobs in record numbers—4 million people in the US during April alone—and many presumably attempt to find new ones, it’s safe to assume that cover letters are being carefully crafted across the country.

For women, that can require the maddeningly difficult task of finding the right language to play into gendered expectations. She may think to herself: Should I sound assertive to break any stereotypes held by the hiring manager? Or should I pretend those assumptions aren’t happening?

A recent study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management complicates matters even further.

Women are shunned for not using ‘feminine’ language

To better understand what’s at play in occupations that remain segregated according to gender, Joyce He, a former PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and lead author of the paper, analyzed the real-world cover letters of women who applied for jobs in male-dominated industries. Her work found that women attempted to ward off gendered expectations by carefully considering their word choices—a common practice, according to a growing body of evidence, the authors write.

The applicants downplayed their gender by using fewer feminine words, assuming that would make them look like stronger candidates. They did not use “masculine” language, but instead struck a gender-neutral tone.

Previous social psychology studies have found that words connected to male stereotypes might include competitive, assertive,  confident, and entrepreneurial, as He explains, whereas words that are often associated with femininity include sensitive, cooperative, empathetic, and caring.

However, He’s work shows that women whose cover letters were less feminine-sounding were also less likely to be hired for any job because they weren’t meeting stereotype expectations. Although that might be the predictable outcome when applying for a position seen as feminine, like kindergarten teacher, it was ironically also true when women were seeking “male” jobs.

How the researchers analyzed cover letters

He and her co-author Sonia Kang, an associate professor in the school’s department of management, came to these conclusions by conducting three studies. First they analyzed real cover letters by women applying for roles in various industries and found applications to jobs in male-dominated fields, like tech, contained far fewer feminine words compared to those for female-dominated professions, like nursing. Women who didn’t conform to expectations of being kind and nurturing were also less likely to have landed any job.

In the second study, the researchers collected cover letters from people applying to an MBA school in Canada and found that many women did not describe themselves using feminine words, even when their reference did. The same discrepancy did not surface when they compared the men’s application letters to those of their references. Again, women whose personal letters did not highlight “feminine” qualities were less likely to get a call inviting them to an interview at the school.

Finally, in the third experiment, the researchers asked male and female undergrad students to manipulate cover letters they had used for past roles to hypothetically apply for a randomly assigned job opening. Some of the jobs were the kind that typically go to men, others were demonstrably more likely to be held by women, and a third group were gender-neutral. “We told them, please revise these materials as if you were applying to this listing,” says He. “We also asked them why they made the changes they did.”

The women who were applying to a “male” job were more likely to anticipate bias or discrimination based on their gender, says He, “as a result, they were more likely to use less feminine language and a cover letter.” It was a conscious decision, one that did not surface in interviews with men.

The researchers also asked a separate group of people with former hiring experience to evaluate the applications and choose the candidates they’d be most likely to hire. Here they discovered that women who eschewed feminine language were not favored; what’s more, they were labeled less likable than women who threw in words like “interpersonal” or “helpful” in their cover letters. In other words, they were victims of the classic backlash effect, which occurs when people behave counter-stereotypically. (Men who did not meet male expectations were also penalized, but the effects were not as significant, He tells Quartz.)

Studies in social psychology have long demonstrated that women face the same quandary once they’re in a job, particularly in leadership roles, says He. They can choose to be direct and confident and be seen as competent, but a bit nasty; or they can be warm, nurturing, and therefore likable (punctuating their email messages with apologies, emoji, and exclamation points), but considered less effective.

It’s time for companies to fix the hiring process

To be sure, the authors are not advising women to stop masking their gender or turn into pleasant Pollyannas in job applications. (“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Kang in a press release about the study. ) Instead, they suggest women just be authentic in their cover letters and ignore conventional advice to “lean in” to the world as it is and manage the impressions they make.

“I think our research really shows it may be unproductive and unfair, frankly, for women and minorities to have to navigate the system when that kind of bias gets in their way,” says He, who is now an assistant professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management.

She further argues that it’s really up to organizations to find ways to remove gender bias from the hiring process, by anonymizing resumes or finding other ways “so that gender norms won’ be so prevalent in their decisions,” says He.  “That’s the only one way we can actually start to chip away at the discrimination and bias that exists.”