The Misplaced Focus on Gendered Language in Job Posts

New research debunks the commonly held belief that tailored language increases gender diversity.

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Jun 15, 2023

Over the past few years especially, there’s been a push to ensure that job posts use gender-neutral language in order to avoid hiring biases. The effort is widely touted as a best practice, but does evidence support it?

The answer may not be as clear as many recruiting professionals have been coaxed to believe. To be clear, we’re not talking about clearly discriminatory language like:

Woman — Mature, 40 to 55 years of age for secretarial work in x-ray department of hospital. Typing essential, shorthand not needed. 5 1/2 -day week. Write stating age, experience and salary expected.

(That’s a real job ad…from 1960.)

Rather, the issue today is more about gender-coded words in job posts. The Employers Council offers some examples of words stereotypically associated with specific a gender and that consequently can alienate people from applying:

Male: competitive, aggressive, challenge, decisive, courage/courageous, dominate, champion, driven, fearless

Female: collaborative/collaborate, dependable, honest, loyal, interpersonal, enthusiastic/enthusiasm, committed, connect/connected, patient

The Council additionally references Goldman Sachs. When the financial giant stripped “aggressive” from job posts, more women were hired.

Then there’s a 2011 study out of Harvard that found that job ads “using more masculine wording were perceived by women to be less appealing than the same ads using more feminine wording…regardless of whether they were male- or female-dominated occupations. Job ads using masculine wording were perceived by men to be more appealing than the same ads using feminine wording…showing the opposite pattern to female participants, but it was not significantly different.”

Challenging Conventions

Recent research conducted, however, challenges prior findings. Contrary to popular belief, the research suggests that simply changing the language used in job advertisements does not significantly contribute to attracting more women to male-dominated industries.

In a paper titled “The Gendering of Job Postings in the Online Recruitment Process,” MIT Sloan professor Emilio J. Castilla and Michigan State’s Hye Jin Rho cite two studies they conducted. One included data on 487,000 job seekers and from 296,000 U.S. job postings over a two-year period. The other involved a two-stage field experiment with 2,500 job seekers. The results of the studies led the researchers to conclude that altering gendered language had no substantial effect on women’s application rates.

“Our findings reveal that both the language used when posting jobs and the gender of the recruiters have no effects that matter in practice on how women and men behave during recruitment,” Castilla and Rho claim. “We caution that the practice of simply altering the language of job descriptions may not necessarily help organizations address diversity issues.”

This discovery poses a challenge to the widely accepted notion that using more inclusive language automatically leads to a higher number of female candidates — especially given that numerous software vendors tout their ability to create gender-neutral language as a feature.

Altering language alone, the researchers say, overlooks deeper-rooted barriers that hinder gender diversity in certain fields. While language is undoubtedly important, it is just one piece of the puzzle. Gender disparities in industries often arise from a complex interplay of factors, including structural barriers, societal norms, and implicit bias.

What’s more, even with gender-neutral language, job posts may still be affected by unconscious biases that discourage women from applying. Studies have shown that people tend to associate certain traits and characteristics with specific genders, leading to the perpetuation of stereotypes. These biases can manifest in the selection criteria, job requirements, or even the perceived company culture, deterring potential female applicants regardless of the language used.

Additionally, gender disparity is often deeply rooted in the structures and cultures of organizations. Male-dominated industries tend to have established networks and norms that inadvertently exclude women. These structural barriers, such as limited mentorship opportunities or lack of flexible work arrangements, pose significant challenges for women seeking to enter or progress in these fields. Merely modifying language does not address these systemic issues that perpetuate gender inequality.

“In practice,” the authors ultimately conclude, “employers’ efforts to simply tweak the language of recruitment messages do not matter much for gender equality and diversity.”

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