Language Matters - Is Your Job Advert Putting Women Off?

Language matters, especially when it comes to job descriptions. Recently, a tech company posted a job and all of the applicants were men.

Why? The advert’s language is likely to blame, specifically an overwhelming use of masculine-gendered language, which can make it difficult for women to see themselves in the role and subsequently stop them from applying to jobs for which they are qualified. According to research, many women will read a job advert and then believe, usually subconsciously, that they are not suitable for the role and rule themselves out of applying.

Job descriptions often provide the first impression of an organisation’s culture, and women are put off from applying to adverts that contain an abundance of masculine language; for example, adjectives like ‘superior’, ‘competitive’, ‘decisive’ and ‘determined’.

In contrast, job adverts that contain a balance of masculine and feminine-gendered language produce a sense of inclusiveness and belonging, increasing the probability of a woman applying for the role. Examples of feminine-gendered words include ‘committed’, ‘supportive’, ‘considerate’, ‘cooperative’, ‘collaborative’ and ‘responsible’.

Anna Beninger, Senior Director, Research and Corporate Engagement Partner, at Catalyst, said: “For objective and unbiased job descriptions, companies need to balance masculine words with feminine ones to convey they value a diverse set of skills.”

The goal is not to make job descriptions gender neutral, as some might suggest, but rather to make them gender balanced, along with an equal number of masculine and feminine words. Importantly, the research also found that the language used in a job advert had no impact on the likelihood of a man applying for a role.

Job descriptions should also be carefully audited to weed out any vague terms, particularly as ambiguity can discourage women who are qualified to apply. Research has revealed that most women will not apply for roles unless they meet 100% of the criteria listed in the job advert, whereas men who will apply meet only 60% of the requirements. Consider dividing the skills and experience into two sections titled “Required” and “Desirable, Though Not Required” to encourage women to apply. Also, it is critical to focus only on objective job requirements, rather than cultural fit, which too often can be seen as code for how similar they are to current employees.

When developing a job description, all elements of the job should be questioned to challenge assumptions that may inhibit your ability to attract a diverse set of candidates. For example, does it have to be based in a certain location or be tied to specific times? And is experience or a particular skill an absolute requisite for the job?

“For companies struggling to attract women, editing job descriptions is an easy place to start and has the potential to result in very tangible gains,” Beninger advises.

Organisations could also consider implementing other measures to ensure a diverse pool of candidates; for example, a blind resume/CV screening process whereby names are removed to reduce the possibility of unconscious bias. Recruiting companies should also be briefed on the importance of gender diversity to stop informal judgements being made on whether a candidate will or will not ‘fit’ with an organisation (i.e., a subjective judgement usually based on whether they feel personally comfortable with this person).

Other corporate communications should also be seen to be unbiased and diverse. Pictures on a company website should feature a balanced gender mix, as Catalyst research has shown the need for women to see female role models in order to feel that they can succeed in an organisation.

To stay competitive, all companies need to be tapping into the entire talent pool, and not just half of it. Men will apply for a role no matter the gendered language, so potential candidates are not lost by using feminine-gendered text. So by using this approach, there is the potential to attract more women applicants. (Lists of masculine-coded and feminine-coded words can be found in these links.)

In the tech company that had struggled to attract female applicants, Catalyst revised the advert to balance the language and be attractive to both men and women, and they were ultimately able to attract qualified women applicants when it was re-posted.

Organisations must remove the potential for bias and preference in their recruitment process and challenge how they define talent. Otherwise they will find that women are choosing to take their talents elsewhere.

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