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Are Gender Biased Job Descriptions Still an Issue?

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Since the early 70s, it has been illegal to advertise specifically for men or women or to use pronouns such as he or she in a job ad.

However, the language in job ads can still suggest a job is more ‘male’ or ‘female’, and occasionally you will still see the rules are broken in ads looking for a ‘man’ or an ad stating they are looking to hire a ‘woman’.

There have been a number of studies and articles, including our own whitepaper, on the use of gender-biased words and how they can influence applicants. However, over the past number of years, this seems to be less prevalent.

Gender bias in job descriptions

Studies now show that the impact of gender bias in job descriptions has decreased. In one study of 17 million job posts collected from 2005–2016, it shows gender bias has reduced significantly.

In a less positive light, stereotypes and misconceptions remain. Job ads for different sectors and different level seniority can have different levels of impact, for example, the technology, construction and science sectors and senior-level management roles can still be associated with a bias against women.

Take for example software company Atlassian who saw a striking 80% increase in the hiring of women in technical roles over a two year period as a result of adjusting their ad copy.

A study by Harvard interestingly has also shown that women’s reluctance to apply was out of concern for not fitting in or belonging not because they didn’t think they could do the job. Would you apply for a job where you thought you’d be the only man or the only women in the organisation?

So, what can we do when advertising roles to attract the right person for the job, regardless of gender, and promote a sense of belonging and equality for all?

In job descriptions, words are your primary tool, and academic research has shown that many common words used in job descriptions have male or female associations. Here are some tips to help you create inclusive job descriptions and avoid gendered job ads.

How to avoid bias in job descriptions

Check pronouns & titles

When describing a role use terms such as 'she/he', ‘successful candidate’ or 'you.' For example, ‘you would be a key team member working across all departments” “This person will implement” “The successful candidate will be able to…”

With regards title, male-oriented titles can prevent women from applying, while more feminine words can deter male applicants.

For example, avoid words like 'hacker’ or 'ninja’ and use descriptive, neutral titles like 'engineer,' 'project manager,' 'analytics manager', or 'developer.'

Avoid using gender-charged words

Words like: 'analyse', 'determine, 'competitive' and 'dominate' traditionally attract men, while 'collaborative', 'supportive' or “compassionate” are widely associated with femininity.

Used alone, one or two words probably won’t deter an applicant but combined with other elements, such as benefits mentioned or imagery used, an overall more masculine or feminine culture can be portrayed. To avoid off-putting wording focus on skills and your company culture, values and benefits instead.

Tools like Textio or Gender Decoder will help you identify spots in your word choices. Asking co-workers of various genders to read over can be a useful tool.

Diversify your marketing collateral

If you find you are getting imbalanced applications or are lacking in diversity look at your advertising and website. What image do you portray? Do you use a variety of imagery and represent a range of genders, age groups and ethnicities?

If you’re sharing a job ad with an image – what image are you using? Try to put yourself in an applicant’s shoes and look at things from a male/female perspective or ask someone who is unbiased, and who you trust to give you an honest opinion, to review and tell you what they think.

Limit the number of requirements

Limit the number of qualifications or bullet points in a job description to mitigate job-listing gender bias. Splitting requirements into ‘essential’ and ‘nice to have’ or ‘desirable’ can also be beneficial.

Research shows that women are unlikely to apply for a position unless they meet 100% or close to 100% of the requirements, while men will apply if they meet 60% of the requirements. More recent research from a 2019 LinkedIn report also shows that women apply for fewer jobs and are more hesitant to ask for referrals.

This confidence gap could prevent suitable candidates from applying for your jobs.

Culture, values, and benefits

As mentioned above a sense of belonging, or lack thereof, can deter applicants. Include information on your culture and benefits (for example maternity/paternity leave info, any relevant D&I award wins or mentor programs, flexible work hours, remote working policies) to help candidates picture themselves working for your company.

If your company has strong company values include these too. This will give candidates an insight into the environment they would be joining. Information on corporate social responsibility is great to include. For example, within Cpl we generally include information about our employee networks, such as BeProud@Cpl and our sustainability group Green Works, as well as information about volunteer days, charities we support and flexible working policies.

The words you use in job descriptions and the image you portray could be repelling or attracting candidates based on their gender. Do an honest audit of your job ads, job descriptions and overall presence online. There is always room for improvement, particularly during such unpredictable and difficult times

Thank you to Siobhan O’Shea, Client Services Director and Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Kerri Morris, and Stephen Molloy from our BeProud Group for their input in this article.

If you’re interested in learning more please reach out, or for more information on Cpl's Diversity and Inclusion policies click here.