Downplaying Femininity in Cover Letters for Male-Dominated Job Backfires – UCLA

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3 November 2021
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Cover letters are often the first opportunity a job applicant has to make an impression on a potential employer. If a female applicant is applying for a male-dominated job, she may use the cover letter as a chance to downplay her femininity in order to better align with what she believes the employer is looking for, or with what have historically been the (male) characteristics of successful applicants.
But does this strategy, known as social-identity-based impression management, or SIM, actually work?
A paper by UCLA Anderson’s Joyce C. He and University of Toronto’s Sonia K. Kang, published in Academy of Management Journal, says no. When women attempt to manage impressions of their gender by using less feminine language in cover letters for male-dominated jobs, they are less likely to be hired. Men do not engage in these SIM strategies in the first place, nor are they penalized for using less feminine language.
Dealing with Anticipated Discrimination in the Job Search
These findings are important because the labor market remains stubbornly segregated along gender lines. Although women comprise roughly half of all U.S. workers, they are underrepresented in high-level executive jobs and hold just over one-fourth of jobs in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math; conversely, men are underrepresented in caring fields such as health care, domestic work and elementary school education.
The researchers deal with two questions:
They sought to answer these questions through three studies. The first looked at real cover letters and hiring outcomes, based on 257 participants, 54% of them women, with de-identified resumes and cover letters, the latter of which were analyzed for gendered language (“individualistic” and “competitive” are examples of masculine words, while words like “committed” and “supportive” were coded as feminine). The jobs applied for were coded based on male representation, or what percentage of jobs in that field were held by men, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
After controlling for job characteristics such as salary and education requirements, the researchers found that, indeed, women used less feminine language in their cover letters when applying for male-dominated positions compared with female-dominated ones, and that this resulted in less favorable hiring incomes. In fact, they found that “female applicants who used less feminine language were less likely to be hired across all job contexts.” This suggests a penalty for women who present themselves as less feminine, regardless of whether a job was male-dominated, female-dominated or equally represented by men and women. 
The second study used admissions data from roughly 1,200 students to a male-dominated business-school program (business schools’ student bodies are only about 30% female in the U.S.). They found that women using less feminine language in their descriptions of themselves in applications were less likely to be called back for an interview.
How Job Seekers View Their Gender Versus Hiring Managers
The third study, conducted in two parts, looked first at how applicants managed impressions of their gender in their cover letters when applying for fictional jobs that were presented as either male- or female-dominated, and then at how real hiring managers evaluated these cover letters. The researchers had 402 undergraduates, 52% of whom were women, first submit a current resume and cover letter.
Then, the subjects were asked to apply to one of three job postings: administrative assistant (a female-dominated role), information technology assistant (male-dominated role) or sales assistant (gender-neutral role). After seeing the job posting, the students then altered their original application materials and were asked about anticipated gender discrimination. Women applying for the IT assistant job reported anticipating more gender discrimination, which then made them more likely to minimize feminine language in their cover letters.
All of these cover letters were then shown to a panel of 360 people with hiring experience, 48% of whom were female. Each was shown one of the same three job postings and real cover letters. The evaluators perceived cover letters from female applicants with more feminine language as overall more hireable than those with less. By contrast, instead of being perceived as more competent and therefore more hireable, women who used less feminine language were “significantly less hireable” than those who used more.
These women who downplayed their femininity in their cover letters were also rated as “significantly less likable” by the evaluators. Indeed, likeability may be the quality upon which hiring turns: “Being seen as less likeable will lead women to experience less favorable hiring outcomes.”
Why Female Job Seekers Get Backlash for Wording in Cover Letters
Why does this reduction in liking — otherwise known as backlash — occur? The authors propose that “strong prescriptive behavioral norms make gender a unique social identity.” In other words, strong societal expectations exist about how women and men are expected to self-present (i.e., women as more feminine), and women’s attempts to downplay femininity violate those gender “rules” and incur lower liking.
He and Kang conclude that women who attempt to manage gender when applying for male-dominated jobs may actually harm their chances of success instead of improving them. “Existing gender segregation in the labor market forces women to cope by downplaying femininity in their cover letters, which ironically incurs backlash,” they write. This, the authors propose, is the novel manner in which occupational segregation is propagated. “In other words, women are forced by the system to cope in ineffective ways,” they write.
This research shows that asking women to navigate biases in the labor market can be ineffective and unfair. Rather than asking minorities and women to cope with and navigate this complicated system, He and Kang argue that the system itself needs fixing and bias should be rooted out at the system level. This means that organizations need to step up and examine ways that they reduce gender bias in their selection processes, which is ultimately the root of the problem. Whether it be anonymized evaluation or testing out and innovating other ways to remove bias in key decision points (i.e., selection), it is time for organizations to take a more proactive role and do their part in rectifying gender inequality.
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Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations
About the Research
He, J. C. & Kang, S. K. (2021). Covering in cover letters: Gender and self-presentation in job applications. Academy of Management Journal, 64(4), 1097-1126. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2018.1280
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