Subtle use of gender bias in job adverts could be dissuading top talent from applying to your business.
Language is a powerful tool. Its use can shape people’s perception of both you and your business – why else would so many corporations spend time and resources perfecting their ‘brand voice’? While we may immediately think of brand-to-consumer marketing here, it is also important to consider your brand to candidate marketing.
The language your business uses when addressing candidates should be consciously shaped even in the earliest stages of recruitment. Yet, many women still feel employers are biased towards male candidates in the talent attraction stage, and are dissuaded from applying for roles. In a time when diversity in the workplace is a common focus among employers, this article aims to give you the information you need to avoid gender bias in your job adverts and attract a high-quality workforce.
What is gender bias in language?
But first, what exactly is gender bias in language? The study of this concept unsurprisingly has its roots in feminism, dating back to the 1970s and 80s when experts aimed to expose how language reinforces gender discrimination. When we speak about this now however, we tend to refer to the more subtle, often unconscious choices we make in speech and writing that are gendered. This kind of language is thought to occur because of the way we stereotypically view men and women in society; for example, women are more likely to be referred to as ‘bossy’, whereas men are less likely to be.
Gender bias in recruitment
Research has shown that gender bias appears even in the earliest stages of recruitment when employers advertise their roles. In-depth research by The University of Waterloo/Duke is the most frequently referred to when it comes to this topic. Analysing a wide range of job adverts, they identified that ‘gender-coded’ language impacted how appealing a role was to women and men. While male-coded language made women feel they belonged in the role less, female-coded language did not have the same effect on men.
You can find the full list of words below:
While the Waterloo/Duke study was critical in starting the conversation on gender bias in job adverts, you may wonder whether this kind of language is still used a decade later. More recent research has shown that this is still the case.
Between 2012 and 2016, Indeed.com’s Job Trends Database Tool found the word ‘dominant’ rose by 65% in job adverts.
- Total Jobs analysed 76,926 UK job adverts and found an average of 6 male-coded or female-coded words per job advert. Male bias was prominent in industries like science and sales, and female bias in admin and social care.
- ZipRecruiter highlighted this is not just a UK issue, analysing millions of US job adverts with business, science, technology, and finance among the industries with the most gender bias.
Why should you avoid gender bias recruitment?
We have given you the evidence, but why should you care about gendered language in your job adverts?
Attract more talent
Although you may not intentionally be using gendered language, you could still be discouraging talented women from applying to your roles. Recent research by Openreach in 2021 found that women were 50% less likely to apply to a gender-coded job role, yet when the language was gender-neutral, their interest increased by more than 200%. This is mirrored in ZipRecruiter’s research, which found gender-neutral job ads received 42% more applications. Essentially, by ensuring you use gender-inclusive language in your job adverts, you can avoid deterring talented applicants.
Increase workplace diversity
Research has shown that attracting a more diverse workforce has numerous benefits for your business. A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found that diverse teams are more innovative, and can produce up to 19% more revenue. Similarly, a 2017 study found that inclusive companies make better business decisions 87% of the time. Ultimately, the bottom-line of your business could be greatly impacted if you are unintentionally dissuading certain candidates from applying to your job adverts.
How to avoid gender bias in job adverts
Society still has some way to go before we stop associating certain languages with certain genders, but there are a few ways you can avoid bringing this subtle bias into your recruitment process.
1. Limit the number of gender-coded words
We have spoken a lot about gender-coded words, and the impact that these can have on how candidates perceive your business. Ideally, you want to ensure your advert is as gender-neutral as possible so that any subtle bias is limited. Luckily, there are now free gender decoder tools available online to help you do this. Simply copy and paste your job advert into the decoder, and it will check for any gender-coded words using The University of Waterloo/Duke’s research.
More subtly gendered words to also look out for are gender-specific job titles such as ‘mailman’, ‘chairman’, ‘fireman’, and so on. Try to use alternative phrasing for these job titles that are not associated with men or women.
2. Limit the use of obligatory language
A key part of a job advert is of course the candidate’s requirements to be considered for the role. These usually fall under areas like years of experience, degree qualifications, licenses, and so on. You will often see job adverts list these requirements using direct, obligatory language; phrases like ‘you must have’ and ‘you will have’ are commonly used, yet language like this can dissuade female applicants from applying. This is because ‘must’ and ‘will’ are modal verbs that express obligation and necessity, and research suggests many women will not apply for a role if they do not meet all the requirements. Instead, try using more advisory modals like ‘you should have’ – while this still implies a requirement, the language is more inviting.
3. Limit the number of requirements
As mentioned above, many women will not apply for a role if they do not meet all the requirements. This was shown in Openreach’s study, where half of the female respondents felt they needed to fit the skills profile of a job advert by 80% or more before applying. Behavioural economist Iris Bohnet suggests actually limiting the number of requirements in your job advert to prevent this. Avoid long lists of bullet points, and instead only include requirements that are absolutely necessary for the role.
4. Use inclusive imagery
While the written language is important for limiting bias in your job adverts, any imagery used should also be considered. Using imagery is a great way to capture attention and engage potential candidates. Ensuring your images represent a diverse range of people is a great way to show you are an inclusive company, particularly if you operate in a stereotypically male or female industry. This extends beyond the initial job advert, and should also be considered in any other additional candidate materials throughout the recruitment process. Make sure that these are real people that work in your business, however, so as to avoid misleading applicants.
We hope you found this article useful for understanding the impact of gender bias in your job adverts. Again, gender bias in language is often unintentional, and the purpose of this article is not to shame or reprimand employers. It is instead to help you more consciously consider how you are addressing potential candidates so that you can create a diverse, innovative, and talented workforce.
If you would like some extra help writing job adverts that appeal to all audiences, check out our webinar on how to write the perfect job advert.