How we describe male and female job applicants differently

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.

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

Don’t underestimate the power of women supporting each other at work

(This is a brilliant article published by Harvard Business Review on the price that women sometimes pay for advocating for or sponsoring younger women … and then the writer encourages them to do it anyway “…vocally, loudly, and proudly”.  There’s also a great illustration of what the Queen Bee looks like.)

Don’t underestimate the power of women connecting and supporting each other at work. As my experiences from being a rookie accountant to a managing director at an investment bank have taught me, conversations between women have massive benefits for the individual and the organization. When I graduated college in the 1970s, I believed that women would quickly achieve parity at all levels of professional life now that we had “arrived” — I viewed the lack of women at the top as more of a “pipeline” problem, not a cultural one. But the support I expected to find from female colleagues — the feeling of sisterhood in this mission — rarely survived first contact within the workplace.

As a first-year accountant at a Big Eight firm (now the Big Four), I kept asking the only woman senior to me to go to lunch, until finally she told me, “Look, there’s only room for one female partner here. You and I are not going to be friends.” Unfortunately, she was acting rationally. Senior-level women who champion younger women even today are more likely to get negative performance reviews, according to a 2016 study in The Academy of Management Journal.

My brusque colleague’s behavior has a (misogynistic) academic name: the “Queen Bee” phenomenon. Some senior-level women distance themselves from junior women, perhaps to be more accepted by their male peers. A study in The Leadership Quarterly concludes, this is a response to inequality at the top, not the cause. Trying to separate oneself from a marginalized group is, sadly, a strategy that’s frequently employed. It’s easy to believe that there’s limited space for people who look like you at the top when you can see it with your own eyes.

By contrast, men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. This makes an increasing difference in representation as you go up the org chart. According to a 2016 McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace, white men make up 36% of entry-level corporate jobs, and white women make up 31%. But at the very first rung above that, those numbers change to 47% for white men and 26% for white women — a 16% drop. For women of color, the drop from 17% to 11% is a plunge of 35%. People tend to think that whatever conditions exist now are “normal.” Maybe this (charitably) explains men’s blind spots: at companies where only one in ten senior leaders are women, says McKinsey, nearly 50% of men felt women were “well represented” in leadership.

Worse than being snubbed by the woman above me was the lack of communication between women at my level. Of the 50 auditors in my class, five were women. All of us were on different client teams. At the end of my first year, I was shocked and surprised to learn that all four of the other women had quit or been fired — shocked at the outcome, and surprised because we hadn’t talked amongst ourselves enough to understand what was happening. During that year, I’d had difficult experiences with men criticizing me, commenting on my looks, or flatly saying I didn’t deserve to work there — but I had no idea that the other women were having similar challenges. We expected our performance to be judged as objectively as our clients’ books, and we didn’t realize the need to band together until it was too late. Each of us had dealt with those challenges individually, and obviously not all successfully.

I resolved not to let either of those scenarios happen again; I wanted to be aware of what was going on with the women I worked with. As I advanced in my career, I hosted women-only lunches and created open channels of communication. I made it a point to reach out to each woman who joined the firm with an open door policy, sharing advice and my personal experiences, including how to say no to doing traditionally gendered (and uncompensated) tasks like getting coffee or taking care of the office environment.

To personal assistants, who might find some of those tasks unavoidable, I emphasized that they could talk to me about any issues in the workplace, that their roles were critical, and that they should be treated with respect.

The lunches were essential, providing a dedicated space to share challenges and successes. Coming together as a group made people realize that their problems weren’t just specific to them, but in fact were collective obstacles. All of this vastly improved the flow of information, and relieved tension and anxiety. It reassured us that though our jobs were challenging, we were not alone. In doing so, I hope it lowered the attrition rate of women working at my company — rates that are, across all corporate jobs, stubbornly higher for women than men, especially women of color.

My own daughter has arrived to a workplace that has not changed nearly as much as I had hoped — although 40% of Big Four accounting firm employees are women, they make up only 19% of audit partners. Only one in five C-suite members is a woman, and they are still less likely than their male peers to report that there are equal opportunities for advancement.

So, what are women in the workplace to do, when research shows that we’re penalized for trying to lift each other up?  The antidote to being penalized for sponsoring women may just be to do it more — and to do it vocally, loudly, and proudly — until we change perceptions. There are massive benefits for the individual and the organization when women support each other. The advantages of sponsorship for protégés may be clear, such as access to opportunities and having their achievements brought to the attention of senior management, but sponsors gain as well, by becoming known as cultivators of talent and as leaders. Importantly, organizations that welcome such sponsorship benefit too — creating a culture of support, and where talent is recognized and rewarded for all employees. Sponsorship (which involves connecting a protégé with opportunities and contacts and advocating on their behalf, as opposed to the more advice-focused role of mentorship) is also an excellent way for men to be allies at work.

But there’s still so much work that needs to be done. I’m thrilled by the rise of women’s organizations like Sallie Krawchek’s Ellevate Network, a professional network of women supporting each other across companies to change the culture of business at large. (I’m especially fond of it because it began as “85 Broads,” a network of Goldman alumnae that drew its name from the old GS headquarters address before Krawcheck, a Merrill alumna, bought and expanded it.) That network spawned a sibling, Ellevest, an investment firm focused on women and companies that advance women. Other ventures include Dee Poku-Spalding’s WIE networks (Women Inspiration and Enterprise), a leadership network whose mission is to support women in their career ambitions by providing real world learning via access to established business leaders. I am attempting to make my own dent in this area, having endowed the McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at my alma mater, Villanova, which supports new research and leadership development opportunities for women.

These are wonderful supplements, but they can’t replace the benefits of and the necessity for connections among women inside a company — at and across all levels. It reduces the feeling of competition for an imaginary quota at the top. It helps other women realize, “Oh, it’s not just me” — a revelation that can change the course of a women’s career. It’s also an indispensable way of identifying bad actors and systemic problems within the company. It need not be a massive program, and you don’t need to overthink it — in fact, there’s a healthy debate about affinity groups run from the top down. Whether you are a first-year employee or a manager, just reach out and make those connections. I’m guessing you’ll find that the return on investment on the cost of a group lunch will be staggering.

Anne Welsh McNulty is the co-founder and managing partner of JBK Partners, with businesses including investment management and a private philanthropy, the McNulty Foundation, which focuses on leadership development and social change. Previously, Anne was a Managing Director of Goldman Sachs and a senior executive of the Goldman Sachs Hedge Fund Strategies Group.

https://hbr.org/2018/09/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-women-supporting-each-other-at-work

Graeme Codrington – Speaker at JHB event 25 October

Graeme Codrington is an expert on the future of work. He is a researcher, author, futurist, presenter and board advisor working across multiple industries and sectors. He has a particular interest in disruptive forces changing how people live, work, interact and connect with each other.

Speaking internationally to over 100,000 people in more than 20 different countries every year, his client list includes some of the world’s top companies, and CEOs invite him back time after time to share his latest insights and help them and their teams gain a clear understanding of how to successfully prepare for the future. Graeme is the co-founder and international director of TomorrowToday, a global firm of futurists and business strategists. He is also a guest lecturer at five top business schools, including the London Business School, Duke Corporate Education and the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He has five degrees, including a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA), a Masters in Sociology, and other professional degrees in Accounting, Arts and Theology, and Youth Work.

Graeme is the only speaker in the world to have been admitted to two different speakers halls of fame, in both South Africa and the UK (where he was awarded the Professional Speaking Association’s Award of Excellence). He is one of only a handful of professional speakers in the world to have earned the Global Certified Speaking Professional status from the Global Speakers Federation.

He has written five books, including the award winning, “Mind the Gap” and “Future-Proof Your Child”, published by Penguin. His latest book is “Leading in a Changing World”, published in July 2015. Graeme writes regularly for numerous blogs, magazines and journals, and is regularly called upon for comment by the media around the world.

Graeme’s breadth of knowledge and expertise make him highly relevant in today’s rapidly evolving business world. Along with his formal qualifications and research credentials, he has a wide range of business experience. He did Chartered Accountancy articles at KPMG, was involved in an IT startup, worked in the Charity sector, has been a professional musician, a strategy consultant and is now a full-time speaker, facilitator and author.

Meet your network – Thandi Ngwane

Thandi joined Allan Gray in 2008 with previous experience in legal, compliance and marketing in the financial services sector and is an admitted attorney. She has held a number of leadership roles in Distribution at Allan Gray and is now Head of Strategic Markets. Thandi enjoys good music, great books and spending time with amazing friends.

Meet your network – Monene Watson

As a member of the SYm|mETRY Multi-Manager team since January 2003, Monene joined Old Mutual Multi-Managers in 2013. She held the position of Head of Equity Manager Research and her responsibilities included selecting equity managers. Monene started her career as a Performance Analyst at Old Mutual Asset Managers, before working for several blue-chip investment firms such as Merrill Lynch, Friends Provident in London, linked investment services provider, TMA, and Edge Investments. Monene has been appointed as Chief Investment Officer of Old Mutual Multi-Managers effective 1 April 2018. She is a CFA Charterholder, a Certified Financial Planner® professional and a member of the Financial Planning Institute.

Meet our panelists – Karin Viviers

Born in Pretoria in 1965, Karin grew up in an Afrikaans family and community in Johannesburg.  She attained a BA degree in Social Work at the University of Stellenbosch in 1987 and worked at different NGO’s like Nicro, Safeline and Child Welfare.

“Because I was raised in the Apartheid’s era, I was aware of  people that were kept away from each other through fear, through group area laws, through religions, through different cultures and through economical status. My vision has always been to build relationships across cultural, language and colour barriers”.

Karin married Jan Viviers, a corporate lawyer, in 1987 and had 3 children. Karin and her husband continued to be involved in various social initiatives, especially in Kayamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch.

One day, the following challenge from an acquaintance changed their lives:

“It’s easy for you to come and talk to us about how much you care for us. But when you are finished here, you’ll get in your car and drive to your safe suburb where you’ll forget about me. You don’t know what it is like to live in a township where poverty and crime surround you day and night.”

A great deal happened between that day and now, when Jan, his wife Karin, and their three young children bought a house in Kayamandi and called it home…

Meet our panelists – Maya Fisher-French

Maya is a well-known South African personal finance journalist and author of Maya on Money: Implement your Money Plan. She has twice won the prestigious Sanlam Award for Excellence in Financial Journalism for the category of Consumer Financial Education.

Maya is editor of My Money My Lifestyle, the personal finance section of national Sunday newspaper City Press. She edited the South African version of Dave Ramsey’s best seller The Total Money Makeover.

Maya is a regular columnist and commentator across several media channels including magazines, radio and television and is a popular speaker at both local and international events where she provides a consumer’s perspective on the financial industry. She also provides money management workshops for employees.

Prior to becoming a financial journalist in 2003, Maya worked for Investec Private Bank as a consultant on their direct investment desk, then for a stockbroking company where she developed their private client trading desk and headed the offshore investment division.

Maya has a Bachelor of Arts in English and an Honours degree in Economics from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Meet our panelists – Janet Hugo

Janet has been in the financial services industry for more than 10 years, previously as a director of Hugo Capital and currently as a director of Sterling Private Clients. In 2006, she started and ran the Sunday Times Wealth Forum where she presented to over 150 members of the public on general topics of financial planning and investment management. Later, Janet hosted the Finance Week Wealth Forum, involving series of published articles and public presentations.

She has been actively involved with FPI since 2009 and was elected to chair the FPI Investment Competency Committee since 2010. In June last year, Janet was elected to the FPI Board of Directors as a non-executive director.

Meet our panelist facilitator – Shireen Chengadu

Shireen is pursuing her dream.  Her mantra for 2018 is: Escape the Ordinary!

In 2016, after 14 years at GIBS and compelled by her passions and leadership purpose, she founded Chengadu Advisory.  Her mandate?  To help organisations transform and become more inclusive through leadership and strategic solutions. Her commitment to ethical and moral leadership has grown out of her values and board experience.

Shireen has an Executive MBA through UCT and a Master’s Degree in Education. She has paused her Doctorate while she grows Chengadu Advisory. Her consulting focuses on the intersectionality of Gender, Race and Class and includes research, and the design and implementation of plans to address gaps in corporates. She advises and mentors business leaders.

Shireen lectures in open, corporate and MBA elective programmes, both locally and outside South Africa. She is co-author of the book: Women Leadership in Emerging Markets, commissioned by Routledge New York, and is a frequent keynote speaker across diverse sectors.

Shireen was one of Finweek’s 10 Women to Watch in 2014, and was a finalist in Top Businesswomen of the Year Award category at the 11th annual Standard Bank Top Women Awards.

By invitation of the Vice Chancellor, Shireen is currently devising a Turnaround Strategy and implementation plans for the Department of University Relations at the University of Pretoria.

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