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

Mar 1, 2013
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

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 part of a series called Opinion.
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