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You Don’t Know It, But Women See Gender Bias in Your Job Postings

by Mar 1, 2013, 5:31 am ET

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 9.38.36 AMAre a few gender-themed words in your job descriptions signaling women, unconsciously, to not apply?

A scientific study of 4,000 job descriptions revealed that a lack of gender-inclusive wording caused significant implications for recruiting professionals tasked to recruit women to hard-to-fill positions underrepresented by women.

This study addressed questions such as: do job descriptions that lack feminine-gender words repel female applicants? Could the lack of gender-inclusive wording in your job description influence women to opt out and not apply? Are there gender bias characteristics in your job advertisements? Could the lack of gender-inclusive words actually be perpetuating gender inequality in your organization?

Let’s turn to a study published in the American Psychological Association by the authors Gaucher, Friesen, & Kay called, “Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality.” Researchers studied gender wording in job advertisements and job descriptions and the effect of gender wording on job seekers. The researchers first established that women’s style of communication is more communal, using more emotional and social words than men’s style of speech. Secondly, the researchers tied women’s perceptions of gendered words to previous research on the nature of subtle wording differences in job advertisements.

The researchers linguistically coded job descriptions found in a U.S. Department of Labor database that were predominately populated for masculine-themed words such as active, ambitious, analytical, competitive, dominate, challenging, confident, decisive, determined, independent, leader, objective, etc., as well as feminine-themed words such as committed, connected, cooperative, dependable, interpersonal, loyal, responsible, supportive, trust, etc. The results confirmed that job descriptions for male-dominated jobs contained more masculine-themed words associated with male stereotypes than job descriptions from female-dominated jobs and vice versa.

What impact could this subtle but systematic wording differences within job advertisements have on job seekers’ perceptions and subsequent behaviors?

The authors hypothesize that to women, masculine-themed words alerts them to the possibility that they will not fit or do not belong. To test this hypothesis, the researchers used 96 randomly selected job seekers to read different job descriptions, each constructed with masculine-themed words or feminine-themed words. For example, the masculinity worded advertisement for a registered nurse stated “We are determined to deliver superior medical treatment tailored to each individual patient,” whereas the femininely worded advertisement for the same registered nurse position stated, “We are committed to providing top quality health care that is sympathetic to the needs of our patients.” After reading each job description, the job seekers rated each on job appeal and sense of belongingness.

Example of feminine and masculine-themed words used in a engineering job description:

Engineer Company Description:

  • Feminine: We are a community of engineers who have effective relationships with many satisfied clients. We are committed to understanding the engineer sector intimately.
  • Masculine: We are a dominant engineering firm that boasts many leading clients. We are determined to stand apart from the competition.

Engineer Qualifications:

  • Feminine: Proficient oral and written communications skills. Collaborates well in a team environment. Sensitive to clients’ needs, can develop warm client relationships.
  • Masculine: Strong communication and influencing skills. Ability to perform individually in a competitive environment. Superior ability to satisfy customers and manage company’s association with them.

Engineer Responsibilities:

  • Feminine: Provide general support to project team in a manner complimentary to the company. Help clients with construction activities.
  • Masculine: Direct project groups to manage project progress and ensure accurate task control. Determine compliance with client’s objectives.

Not surprisingly, the results showed that women found that jobs with masculinity worded job descriptions less appealing, compared with the same types of jobs which used feminine wording across all job types — whether they were male or female dominated occupations — even though these gender words composed a small fraction of the total words in the job advertisement.

The research results were obvious: women job seekers were more interested in male-dominated jobs when advertisements were unbiased, making reference to both men and women as candidates. In other words, women and men, for example, may equally like and desire an engineering job, but highly masculine wording used in the job posting reduces women’s appeal of the job because it signals that women do not fit or belong in that job. In this way, qualified male and female applicants are opting out of jobs that they could perform well.

Generally, the findings found that gendered-themed words had the greatest effect on women. Perhaps many job descriptions, with their established gender wording, repels female applicants and maintains traditional gender inequality in male-dominated jobs. The results of this research suggest replacing the masculine-themed words with similar feminine-themed words, which would increase women’s interest in those advertisements.

The nuance of gender-themed words makes it a particularly pernicious and powerful contributor to inequality because it was found, surprisingly, that not one participant realized the presence of the gendered language. Instead of attributing their perceptions to the use of gender language, participants attributed their reasons to personal lack of interest in the job or just general lack of appeal.

The implications to recruiting professionals, and especially those who are expending valuable time and resources on attracting skilled women in hard to fill occupations, are many. Are our traditional job postings repelling the same valuable candidates we are trying so hard to attract and recruit? Are we unintentionally contributing to the same gender inequality we oppose?

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Jane Gray

    From my perspective as a woman, I call horse puckie on this one and disagree.

  • http://www.nefwigroup.com Gwen Gayhart

    It’s critical to note that many of the words and phrases the article identifies as “gender-themed” can also be attributed to differing behavioral styles of individuals, regardless of gender. For example, a woman who reflects a more direct, results-oriented profile on a behavioral scale is more likely (perhaps as likely as a similarly-profiled man) to find appeal in the “masculine-themed” wording referenced in the above information. Jane, perhaps you, like I, would find yourself in this group?

    Regardless, as in any “sales process,” it’s a good reminder for those of us in talent acquisition to tailor our communication to the specific audience we are looking to attract. I appreciate the reminder and will be reviewing my job postings today!

  • Bill Glaves

    I’m pretty much with Jane on this one. The two engineer positions described in the article are different jobs, with different qualifications, and clearly different work cultures. Of course that will attract differently, regardless of gender. I’m curious if the study asked a same questions to a set of 96 randomly selected men and, if so, what were the results of that. Now, I’m not a researcher or statistician, but if that wasn’t how the study was set up, then I question its validity.

  • http://www.wecrut3.com Roelf Woldring

    Me three on this one.
    What is clear that is people responding differently to the kinds of words these researchers are using. What is not clear is that these differences are because the words are “masculine or feminine”. They are just different, and are bound to appeal to different types of people, who might happen to male or female. Poor logic in the research design.

  • Megan Calimbas

    In an era where one has mere seconds to attract or deter talent there can’t be too much emphasis on the effect that linguistics/natural language has on the brain. Agree or disagree I would encourage everyone to read the full study here for further context: http://ow.ly/iaRiO

    I also found this tidbit to be fascinating:
    “Managerial positions were not collected because of uncertainty about whether managerial advertisements could be accurately categorized as male or female dominated.”

  • Karina SumnerSmith

    While I’m very interested in how word use and phrasing affects candidates’ perception of a role/company/etc, that is unfortunately not what this study appears to have investigated, regardless of the intent of its designers. The word choice was not the only variable changed in this experiment; in modifying the wording, the experimenters materially changed the nature of the job described.

    For example, “Collaborates well in a team environment” and “Ability to perform individually in a competitive environment” are not sentences that are using different words to describe the same working environment, but rather sentences describing very different working environments.

    While one could use this information to make broad assumptions about the style of working environment, team structure, etc, that male- or female-identified individuals may tend to prefer (assumptions that would require more detailed study, and should not be assumed to apply to all individuals), one cannot use it to point to the effect of phasing in job postings on candidates by gender.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Stephen. Thank you for the article. I think it makes valid points, as do many of the critiques. At the same time:
    1) Why would anyone assume that even a carefully and clearly-nuanced description is an accurate portrayal of the work environment? More likely, it’s an accurate portrayal of what the writer of the JD wants to convey, which is not by any means the same thing.

    2) Why would the typical applicant pay attention to job descriptions beyond the requirements and location? If they need/want a job and they meet the qualifications (or even if they don’t), they’ll apply.
    If you’re looking for “the fabulous 5%”: a well-worded, nuanced JD may be necessary, but not sufficient.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/angelaguida Angela Guida

    Thank you for this article, I thought it was fascinating! I have to admit that I was skeptical of it at first, but as soon as I read the differences, I much more quickly identified with the feminine-themed words. Is there a place where you can go to identify feminine vs. masculine words to use in job ads??

  • Keith Halperin
  • Stephen Shearman

    Angela,
    I too thought the study was fascinating and even very insightful in light of the extraordinary efforts and resources recruiters and organizations invest in searching for and recruiting women into under-populated occupations by females and the potential impact of certain gender themed words found in typical job descriptions.

    You asked for a location of information concerning gender themed words:
    1) Here is a link of the gender themed words used in this study: http://bit.ly/XtfYB9
    2) Here is a link to a scientific study with an interesting title “Champagne, Beer, or Coffee? A Corpus of Gender Related and Neutral Words” that researched and identified 600 gendered themed words. http://bit.ly/XtEouo

    I will forward other resources as I continue my search.

  • Sylvia Dahlby

    With all due respect, I totally agree with Jane & the rest of the naysayers. I am a big believer in gender equity, diversity in the workplace, and writing a job posting that attracts the most qualified talent as well as describes the type of culture & work environment — but Methinks this “study” is a perfect example of a hypothesis in search of proof.

    So the words “active” and “ambitious” masculine-themed? This very concept is a throw back to the 50′s. I’m sure we all know plenty of analytical, competitive, confident, decisive, determined, independent women who are strong leaders… and plenty of men who are committed, connected, cooperative, dependable, interpersonal, loyal, responsible, supportive, and trusting.

    This flawed pseudo-science great example of how “political correctness” has gone horribly wrong.

  • http://www.talenttalks.com Kelly Blokdijk, SPHR

    Thank-you for sharing this research. As a self-proclaimed “word-nerd” with a long history of communication related work experience, I am completely baffled by this information.

    While I strongly agree that all words have meaning and that context matters to the content, I don’t see any gender emphasis (bias) in any of the individual words listed or the job description comparisons.

    If anything, some of the feminine versions strike me as vague and mysterious versus the male versions sounding more focused and clear about expected job performance.

    Either way, regarding job postings, the key is to craft compelling copy that “sells” the opportunity and prompts the target audience to take action.

    There is plenty of room for improvement across the board with job postings, but I wouldn’t consider gender modification a priority for accurate portrayal of a position’s purpose of existence or performance expectations.

    Kelly B @TalentTalks

  • Ty Chartwell

    Age is the most blatant bias in most job descriptions, job applications,
    pre-screens, or face-to=-face interviews especially when you have inexperienced teeny boppers asking stupid questions. Oh my gosh, sooo coool, like yeahhh

  • http://www.verticalelevation.com Carol Schultz

    So much to say. So little time…

    I think “it depends” would be the most appropriate response here. It depends on the applicant, male or female. The brain of a female has different qualities, generally, than the male brain, e.g.: women are more empathetic and intuitive. This doesn’t mean men can’t possess or improve these qualities that are typically innate in females, or that all females are experts in these areas.

    Yes, there are words that tend to be more masculine or feminine. Does this limit response? A survey based on fewer than 100 respondents doesn’t get my attention.

    Another thing…Are the “job descriptions” written because you’ve carefully discovered the common denominators of your performers and non performers? Or are they the usual litany of skills and abilities with no real discovery into the more esoteric qualities of successful performance in the job? Plus, if you’re relying on job postings rather than actively recruiting you get what you get.

    Lastly, I have to point out the possible “elephant in the room”. Walmart is known for gender inequality. I don’t think I need to include any of the many articles written or remind anyone of the class action lawsuit brought about by so many women working for this company. Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Carol: Walmart is known for gender inequality? I’m SHOCKED, SHOCKED! Next you’ll me many startups and certain high-tech employers of choice tend heavily toward age, class, and anti-veteran discrimination…

    Cheers,
    Keith

  • http://www.alasdairdmurraycopywriter.co.uk Alasdair Murray

    An article that, even if there is any mileage in it, which I doubt, really only has any relevance to a US audience, not a UK one. Our legislation doesn’t allow for any hint of discrimination, whether it be by gender or experience and anyone who is familiar with the law makes sure they don’t produce content that even hints at any bias in that respect.

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  • Andrew Fairley

    From looking at this summary, and several of the comments here, it seems that a number of people (although not everyone) seem to be confusing the difference between sex and gender. Sex is a biological term – male or female. Gender is an aspect of identity – masculine or feminine. A man can be feminine and a woman can be masculine. Gender is socially constructed; there is no reason that a woman can’t be aggressive, assertive and competitive, just as there is no reason that a man cannot be sympathetic, empathetic and personable. However, gender norms are put on us from a very young age (think dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink) and as a result men are more likely to identify with masculine traits, and women with feminine traits.

    In fact, other studies have found that it is gender that is indicative of how people respond, rather than sex as the summary suggests. A ‘masculine’ woman is more likely to assume leadership in a group situation than a ‘feminine’ man. In the example job descriptions above, the ‘masculine’ JD doesn’t appeal to me, but the ‘feminine’ one does. Whether a person is masculine or feminine depends on a huge range of complex factors, and as identity tends to be fragmented and fluid, can change from day-to-day based on a complex range of internal and external variables. I know of one study which found that after attending sports matches as spectators, participants were more likely to demonstrate masculine traits for example!

    I will go and read the study directly, but if the summary is an accurate recap of it then all it proves is that women will tend to be more feminine and men will tend to be more masculine – this is nothing new.

  • Lura Vernon

    From this post, I can see why I became a woman engineer. I would much rather have “strong” communication skills than “proficient” ones; I would prefer to be “individually competitive…with superior abilities” than be “sensitive and warm” when I’m building a space telescope that needs to have enough cryogen to last 7 years, and one mistake made by me could mean that billions of dollars and years of research have been lost.

    Gender identities aside, which personality that meets these sets of criteria would you rather have building the bridge that you drive over every day?

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