Published on Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Are Words in Job Postings Turning off Women Candidates?

Author: Anthony Kaylin

Implicit bias is a growing area of study and a recognized issue in the workplace.  An interesting issue that has generated much research is whether certain words commonly used in job postings are discouraging candidates in protected groups, in particular women, from applying for certain jobs. For example, recruiting for a coding specialist, some job postings have advertised for a "coding ninja,” i.e., a master coder. But the term “ninja” may be more attractive to males since it refers to master killers and violence. “Rock star” could be another negative term; it may convey to job seekers that the workplace is full of loud egoists.


A 2011 study by Danielle Gaucher and Justin Friesen of the University of Waterloo and Aaron C. Kay of Duke University suggest that gendered wording (i.e., masculine- and feminine-themed words, such as those associated with gender stereotypes) may be an unacknowledged, institutional-level mechanism for maintaining inequality. In other words, job postings for jobs that are traditionally male dominated will likely use male suggestive words such as leader, competitive, and dominant. 


Moreover, the study found that when job postings were constructed to include more masculine than feminine wording, participants perceived more men in those occupations and the postings were turn-offs for women applicants, who were less likely to apply for those jobs.  In other words, masculine-themed words were implicit cues that would dissuade women from applying because the words imply that women did not belong in the job.  The study also found that male-dominated professions had job postings that had male-implying words. 


The issue of belonging—i.e., using language that can indicate whether someone  is welcome in a profession  or not—is probably not one that recruiters and hiring managers consciously think of.  For example, the public may view that there are more men within some occupations (e.g., engineering) than other occupations (e.g., nursing). The wording in many job postings often reinforces that perception. The study agreed with that hypothesis of belonging.  Using different wording on job advertisements, the study found participants perceived more men within jobs that had masculine worded advertisements than jobs that had femininely worded advertisements, regardless of participant gender or whether that occupation was traditionally male- or female-dominated.


The real question is how this perception may play out in reality. The study posits that the diversity of the applicant pool will likely be highly influenced by how the ad is written.  The study believes that women and men may equally like and want to work in an engineering job, but highly masculine wording used in postings reduces the appeal of the job to women because it cues that women do not belong.  The study also posits that this subconscious yet implicit bias needs to be consciously identified to avoid potential discriminatory bias in job postings. The authors finally believe that more research into this area is needed.


It should be noted that even if there are women applicants in traditionally male-dominated fields, although not discussed by the authors of the study, interview questions also need to be carefully thought out as well to not discourage applicants from persevering in the process or accepting offers if made.


Recruiters, when composing job postings, should consider using/not using the terms in these lists:


Do not use these terms             Use these terms


active                                       commit

adventurous                              connect

aggressive                                considerate

ambitious/ambition                    cooperate

analytical                                  depend

assertive                                   honest

autonomous                              interpersonal

decisive                                    loyal

determined                                pleasant

dominant/dominating                 polite

independent                              responsible

lead                                          support

ninja                                         together

objective                                   trust

outspoken                                understand

rock star



By recognizing that there may be hidden or societal biases influencing language, recruiters can better attract a more diverse applicant pool by being more careful in word selection in both their job postings and their interview questions. 


Source:  LinkedIn Talent Blog May 25, 2016


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