Avoiding “feminine words” in a cover letter can cost women the job

Women who attempt to mask their gender in cover letters — to negate anticipated sexism during job searches — may be setting themselves up for failure. Researchers at the Academy of Management have determined that eliminating pronouns and attempting to use more “masculine language” may backfire; it can make applicants seem cold or calculating to a hiring manager.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” says Dr. Sonia Kang. “If (men) are super confident, people don’t care if they’re likable… [they] should behave competitively and dominantly, and women should behave more friendly and communal. When you go against the rules or expectations, women especially can receive this backlash or penalty.”

The report also indicates that men don’t seem to manage impressions of their gender at all. They don’t generally express concern about the type of language used in their cover letters — “masculine” vs. “feminine” words — and rarely think about managing their impressions. However, they are more conditioned to describe themselves using “masculine words” more often than “feminine” ones.

What are “masculine” and “feminine words?

While “masculine” and “feminine” words might seem like antiquated notions in 2022, they are a subset of measurable sociological and scientific phenomena that affect job applicants across industries.

This particular study, much like many other studies on gendered language, utilized the Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) tool to determine which words and phrases seem feminine and which seem masculine. This tool has been used by researchers to determine the psychological content of certain texts for decades, as it can calculate social, psychological, or behavioral states by measuring the frequency of terms that reflect emotions, ways of thinking, and social subtexts.

The theories behind this algorithm were developed in the 1990s by cognitive psychologists, social psychologists, and clinical psychologists, but are updated in accordance with trending changes in culture.

As for what defines masculine and feminine language, studies have shown that female language styles seem more emotional or expressive, both in the topics spoken about and in the words used. A study of language and gender in congressional speeches using the same LIWC tool indicates that “feminine language” can include the use of fewer articles and more “emotion words,” like “think,” “feel,” or “imagine.” Masculine styles tended to encompass more nouns, longer words, and not as many personal pronouns.

When referring to themselves, women tend to identify words like “interpersonal,” “empathetic,” “helpful,” and “friendly” as feminine. As a result, they tend to intentionally shy away from referring to themselves in those ways. Instead, masculine words like “confident,” “outspoken” and “entrepreneurial” are common in some women’s cover letters, especially if applying for jobs in male-dominated fields, like STEM.

Additionally, Dr. Joyce He tells Ladders that masculine adjectives used to describe applicants often include words like “dominant, competitive, [or] ambitious,” whereas feminine descriptors are “sympathetic, cooperative, [or] warm.”

The best bet: be authentic

While it might seem like women referring to themselves as confident or ambitious would be empowering, Dr. He mentions that, unfortunately, this places women in a double bind. Women who behave against stereotypes, and portray themselves as ruthless rather than supportive, might be seen as “more competent, but also less likable.” This reduces the chances of receiving promotions or even being hired in the first place.

So, if feminine language makes you look like a weak underachiever and masculine language makes you look like a heartless overachiever, what’s a woman to do?

The main takeaway, especially if you’re a female looking to break into a male-dominated market like software development or financial advising, is to realize that if you can’t win by either pandering to feminine expectations or eschewing them, you may as well just be yourself. Whether the words that apply to your work ethic and relational style are masculine or feminine, they should be authentic to you, and not an attempt to cater to the biases of a hiring manager.

If you really do score a job based upon a fudged cover letter, you’re setting yourself up to work in a position that isn’t right for you, even if it is right for the person that you’re describing in your cover letter. So be true to yourself, no matter your gender.