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Descriptors used by and about female job seekers close doors

(CAREER) Female job seekers are limited by surprisingly positive terms that tend to backfire and limit opportunities.

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If you’re about to describe your female employee as “nice,” new research says you should take a second and rethink that.

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are stark differences between how male and female job candidates are described on the job.

Regardless of the gender of the supervisors, female employees are frequently described by what is called “communal words.” Examples of communal words include “kind,” ”friendly,” “sensitive,” and “caring.”

While communal words can help sell a candidate whose end career is a field associated with these traits (think early childhood education or nursing), it can be counted as a negative in fields perceived as hard-hitting and male-dominated. After studying the presence of communal words in letters of recommendation, researchers found that the more of those words were present in their letter, the less likely a manager was to hire that person.

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Gendered language goes beyond just the recommendation letter and weaves its way through the application process itself. Researchers at Duke found that jobs in male-dominated fields use words like “competitive,” “dominate,” and even “ninja” whereas female-dominated fields used, you guessed it, communal words.

Even after the hiring process is complete, communal words still plague female employees. In research done on military performance reviews, social scientists found that in a choice between words like “compassionate” or “analytical,” both arguably positive characteristics in an employee, supervisors preferred analytical. Why? Because as compared to typically masculine associated words, they are perceived as weaker — the difference between being mission-oriented and relationship-oriented.

So what are female job seekers to do with this information?

Well, the first step is to review it in your own employment documentation. Many female candidates unknowingly refer to themselves using communal words on resumes and cover letters, not aware of how this can damage their employment chances.

If you’re a supervisor, comb through some of your reference letters or performance reviews and see how you talk about your female or male employees — it might surprise you how you unconsciously differ between the two.

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The old adage “nice guys finish last” is true, but it just so happens to be “nice gals finish last.”

Alexandra Bohannon has a Master of Public Administration degree from University of Oklahoma with a concentration in public policy. She is currently based in Oklahoma City, working as a freelance filmmaker, writer, and podcaster. Alexandra loves playing Dungeons and Dragons and is a diehard Trekkie.

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