Writing a cover letter for a job application can be challenging. Not only is it difficult to summarise your career and why you want the job in a few short paragraphs, it’s also tricky to strike a balance between being keen and seeming desperate. And things become more complicated when trying to tailor your language and tone to fit the job on offer, particularly for women.
Women applying for 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 recent study suggests.
So why do women face disproportionate challenges when crafting cover letters, particularly for occupations segregated by gender?
Joyce He, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, examined cover letters for a variety of real-life jobs and applications to an MBA programme.
Applications for jobs in male-dominated professions, such as tech, contained fewer "feminine" words than those in female-dominated fields, such as social care. He's research found that women applying for jobs in typically masculine fields would respond to anticipated bias by using less feminine language to manage gender impressions.
Women didn’t use more masculine language, however. Rather, they tried to downplay their gender by avoiding words stereotypically associated with women, such as "sensitive", "empathetic", "kind" and "friendly". Previous research has shown that words linked to male stereotypes include "leader", "competitive" and "dominant".
However, He’s research found that attempts by female applicants to manage gender impressions can actually backfire because they didn’t fit with gender stereotypes and expectations.
Although women who behaved in a "counter-stereotypical" way were more likely to be seen as competent, they were also less likeable – leading to them being penalised by hiring managers. Women who didn’t conform to expectations of being kind and nurturing were also less likely to have landed any job.
Women face a double-bind when writing cover letters, the researchers found. If women use gendered language to appear more assertive and decisive – both sought-after leadership qualities – they are seen as more competent but less likeable. Yet when women act in line with their gender stereotype and appear more nurturing and helpful, they’re viewed as likeable but less competent.
“Men should behave competitively and dominantly, and women should behave more friendly and communal,” said study co-author Sonia Kang. “When you go against the rules or expectations, women especially can receive this backlash or penalty. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If men are super confident, people don’t care if they’re likeable.”
Ruth Kudzi, CEO of the Optimus Coach Academy, who is trained in both psychology and neuroscience, says women may face pitfalls when writing cover letters because of the limitations of gender stereotyping in job applications.
“I think women may face pitfalls when writing covering letters because they are conditioned to believe that masculine language is more appealing,” she says. “However, when they use more masculine language, they are turned down for roles. So what do they do? I believe that authenticity shines through, so rather than guessing what people may want, step into how you are the best person for the job and how your application meets the criteria specified.”
The researchers He and Kang both agree that the onus shouldn’t be on women or minorities to try to navigate biases in the labour market. Instead, organisations should be responsible for reducing bias and ensuring a level playing field for women.
“I believe recruiters can avoid unconsciously discriminating against women candidates by providing support for how to complete covering letters,” Kudzi says. Employers may also take steps to remove bias from the selection process, including anonymised applications and evaluations. In the interview stage, employers should ensure they have diverse panels to help eliminate bias in the selection process, particularly in male-dominated industries with fewer women in senior roles.
“Women may be unfairly penalised during the job application process by ads with more gendered language,” says Kudzi. “They may be penalised through the recruitment process if they request flexible working hours, or unconsciously if they are of a childbearing age. Moving towards an anonymous process may mean gender bias is removed.”