Written by Mikki Hebl for Harvard Business Review
Words matter. And the words we use to describe men versus women differ in significant ways that can affect their careers.
This starts early on. Research finds that girls who are described as “bossy” are viewed negatively in ways boys are not. This discrepancy continues into adulthood where the description of being “ambitious” is an insult for women but not for men.
Such words impact the identities that young girls and women form, pushing many of them to feel that they need to be “nice,” a pressure they carry into their careers. For instance, in a recent study of residents training to be physicians, almost half of the women described “apprehension in appearing ‘bossy’ when leading cardiopulmonary resuscitation drills,” whereas no male participants expressed this concern.
The impact words can have on career trajectories is accentuated in the workplace, where people are often asked to recommend, select endorse certain employees. This happens through word-of-mouth referrals, letters of recommendation, performance appraisals, and informal conversations about colleagues.
The problem is that the words and metrics to evaluate women differ from those used to evaluate men – and this reinforces gender stereotypes and stalls women’s advancement. For instance, previous research reveals that recommendation letters written for men tend to be longer than those written for women. Longer letters are perceived to reflect a better candidate than are shorter ones, even though in actuality the men are no more qualified than the women.
Similarly, people are more likely to use standout adjectives, such as “superb,” “outstanding,” “remarkable,” and “exceptional” to describe male than female job applicants. In recommending female job applicants, people not only used fewer superlatives but also used less specificity. Research has also found that, in other evaluative domains, like teacher evaluations, men are more often described as “brilliant” and “genius,” and called out for their ideas, while women tend to be acknowledged for their kind demeanor and execution.
A recent study conducted by our own lab members further adds to gender differences in recommendations, showing that people recommend female versus male candidates in different ways. We analyzed the content of 624 letters of recommendation for job candidates applying for actual positions in an academic institution.
We found that people used more “doubt raisers” when they described female than male applicants, a finding that was not attributable to gender differences in quality or performance. Doubt raisers are short phrases that serve to (most often unintentionally) plant or raise some doubts in the minds of employers, and we examined three main types: negativity, faint praise, and hedges.
Negativity is the most flagrant type of doubt raiser and involves pointing out an overt weakness of a job applicant (e.g., “It’s true that she does not have much previous workplace experience”). The negativity is often couched in terms of addressing and overcoming a weakness, but the negativity is still addressed and potentially heightened. Faint praise is less negative but often perceived as a back-handed compliment (e.g., “She needs only minimal supervision”). Such praise is backhanded because there is seemingly no need to bring up the topic that isn’t fully praiseworthy (e.g., she shouldn’t need any supervision). And hedging involves admitting uncertainty (e.g., “She might not be the best, but I think she will be good”).
Do these doubt raisers have an impact on the perceptions that others form? Short answer: yes. When our research team manipulated a letter of recommendation to include either the presence or absence of just one single doubt raiser, evaluators rated the quality of the applicant more negatively. And the finding wasn’t dependent on a particular type of doubt raiser. The presence of any one resulted in significantly increased negativity. In essence, these seemingly harmless words mattered.
In related research that we conducted, again looking at the content of real letters of recommendation written for academic job positions, we found that letter writers were more likely to use communal words to describe women than men. Communal words are words like “sensitive,” “caring,” “kind,” “friendly” and involve concern about the welfare of others, helping, maintaining relationships. The problem with describing women in these “nice” terms is that the “nice” candidate often doesn’t get hired.
We conducted a follow-up study and found that the number of communal words in a letter of recommendation were negatively related to the desire of an independent set of faculty members’ desire to hire the candidates.
Is the use of communal words to describe women always negative? Not necessarily. Although using such words in occupations that are more masculine stereotyped (e.g., politics, management) might be troublesome, their use might be advantageous in occupations that are feminine stereotyped (e.g., nursing, elementary education).
Who are these gatekeepers using such words? The gatekeepers aren’t just men; women are also using doubt raisers and choosing communal words to describe female job applicants. They are often well-intentioned people. Essentially, they are you and me. But importantly, these women (and men) may not even be aware of the words they are using and certainly the unintended consequences that occur.
These words are those we use to describe ourselves. Our ongoing work is finding that men and women use different sets of language to depict themselves on Indeed.com. We gathered resumes of hundreds of men and women submitted for job openings of feminine (physician assistant, HR manager), masculine (paramedic, IT manager), or gender-neutral (pharmacist, marketing manager) positions.
We filtered these resumes so they each had 5-10 years of work experience, had completed their bachelor’s degree (and not more), and were all from the same region. Then, we examined each applicant’s resume for the extent to which they were likely to choose communal words to depict themselves. Plain and simple, women depicted themselves as more communal and less agentic than did men across every job type that we examined. Women are presenting themselves as nice.
We examined why this difference emerged. Is it possible that women used more communal words because they were describing more communal occupations? To test this, we redacted any communal job occupations (defined as those where at least 75% of jobs are held by women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) from each female and male applicant’s resume. Reanalysis of data without the communal occupations revealed the same results – women still chose to use more communal words to describe themselves on their resumes than did men. Women seem to depict themselves as nice, over and beyond their previous workplace experiences.
Our results tell us several different things. First, people (both men and women) choose to use different sets of words to describe male versus female applicants. Second, these word choices result in more negative evaluations of female than male applicants. Third, men and women not only describe others differently but also represent themselves, as job applicants, differently, and it is not solely attributable to the different experiences that they have had. Women simply seem to choose more communal words to describe themselves than do men. Unfortunately, though, these communal word choices often have negative implications.
What should we do about these workplace differences? One of the most important things we can do is keep ourselves in check and be vigilant about our own use and interpretation of certain words that we might unintentionally use to describe women versus men. If you are a woman, does a quick look at your own resume reveal an excess use of communal descriptors? If so, you might consider revising such words. Consider what skills, traits, and characteristics are required and/or optimal for the job that you are seeking, and try to use these sorts of descriptors instead.
Additionally, are you describing your co-workers and subordinates differently as a function of their gender? Take a quick perusal of your recent recommendation letters, email referrals, or appraisals to see whether you can find evidence that you, too, are engaging in different descriptions of male versus female employees. Identify patterns you may not have noticed previously, and hold yourself accountable so that you, too, do not intentionally shortchange women and/or overprescribe their nice qualities. Be vigilant not only about your own use, but also about how others use words differently. When you see such biases, don’t be afraid to call others out and tell them about the unintentional gatekeeping that their word choices may have.
When reading recommendations, keep in mind that your differential feelings between male and female applicants should come from the applicants, not from biased ways in which others and they, themselves, describe themselves. Being fair means uncovering as many of the societal prejudices that can pervade our selection systems.
In short, words do matter. It’s time for women to stop being “nice,” and, it’s certainly time to stop describing them as such.
Mikki Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of Psychology and Management at Rice University. She is an expert in discrimination and diversity, and she received the 2014 lifetime award from AOM for having advanced knowledge of gender and diversity in organizations. She teaches in the executive MBA program at Rice University and she has published over 150 journal articles and book chapters in outlets such as Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Business and Psychology, and Journal of Management