Write like a girl

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

“Write like a girl,” I told my career coaching client.

My client, a scientist with several years of postdoctoral research experience, was applying for a faculty position at a prestigious university. We were working through drafts of her cover letter. The first draft of her letter was good: well written, well organized, coherent and clear.

But there was a tone.

“Your letter reads very humble,” I told her as I marked up the document. “I think you have a lot of room to be more braggy. I expect you are competing against men who have no problem doing so.”

My editorial comment is backed up by a recent study published in The British Medical Journal that found that men “are much more likely than women to heap praise on their own research and emphasize its importance,” as the study authors wrote in a New York Times editorial in December.

The researchers analyzed the titles and abstracts of more than 6 million life-science articles. They found that in the most highly cited scientific journals, male-led scientific teams were up to 21% more likely than women-led teams publishing comparable studies to use positive adjectives like “novel,” “excellent” and “unique” to describe their results.

And words matter.

The researchers found that articles with a more positive spin in their titles and abstracts were linked to more citations, a critical component in hiring, promotion, pay and funding decisions. The researchers were studying science writing, but the findings are a useful analogy for emails, presentations and promotion docs in the business world.

“There’s a tentative tone to the letter,” I told my client. “Maybe a little diffident. You use phrases like ‘I am eager’ and ‘I am thrilled.’”

Instead, I told her that I wanted her to claim her place, rather than ask for it.

“You describe your research, but don’t say what the impact was. I bet you’re shying away from claiming impact because it feels braggy.”

“I thought I was bragging!” she said, and took another stab at the letter.

A couple of drafts later, her letter confidently outlines how she will contribute to the university’s success. She describes her research and how it intersects with the department’s research focus. She references her publications, calling out which she was lead author on, and stating matter-of-factly the number of citations to date.

The letter is still well written, well organized, coherent and clear, but without the “eager” and “thrilled” language that undermines her serious professionalism. She describes her research as “novel.”

“Nice work writing like a girl,” I told her.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.