When striving for diversity in the STEM workforce, one of the first things recruiters should look at is whether their new vacancies are promoted using inclusive job adverts. We all use language every day, but do we ever stop to think about whether the phrases and words we use are ‘gendered’?
Recent research conducted by LinkedIn found that both genders browse jobs online in a similar way, however, they apply for them differently. The research suggests that male-orientated job descriptions can actively dissuade women from applying to jobs, and this is particularly prevalent within the tech sector. They found that in order to submit an application, women are more likely to feel they need to meet 100 per cent of the criteria, while men usually apply after meeting about 60 per cent of the requirements. Thus, women usually screen themselves out of the process and apply for 20 per cent less jobs once they have read the job advert.
This research is particularly crucial when it comes to graduate recruitment. Most graduates will not leave university with all of the skills they will require for the workplace, however this doesn’t mean that they can’t do the job effectively with a little training. Therefore, it is important for employers to ensure female graduates do not screen themselves out of the process at the first step.
The LinkedIn research is backed up by a further study conducted by the University of Waterloo and Duke University, that found people are less likely to apply to job adverts that had words biased in favour of the opposite gender, whether they noticed it or not.
It is hugely important that employers recognise the difference between gendered language and inclusive language if we are to make big changes in gender imbalanced sectors like STEM. In the UK, women make up just 24% of the STEM workforce in 2019, according to WISE.
Principal Associate at the Institute for Employment Studies in Sussex, Dr Wendy Hirsh, highlights the importance of inclusive job descriptions: “There is a growing awareness in the UK to be inclusive. Employers realise, with the rise of a skill shortage here, that if you skew a job ad to only one group of applicants, you could be missing out on some very talented workers.”
The value of employing a diverse workforce is borne out by research and data. McKinsey found that companies within the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to achieve financial returns above industry norms.
So, what exactly is gender-neutral language and how can inclusive job adverts make a difference?
What is gender-neutral language?
Everyone uses language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’ without realising it and often, job adverts are the worst culprits when it comes to unconscious bias. Gender-neutral language avoids bias towards a particular sex or social gender.
The BBC reported that gender preferences can be conveyed subtly through words such as ‘competitive’, ‘leader’ and ‘dominate’, usually associated with male stereotypes, while words such as ‘support’, ‘community’ and ‘interpersonal’ are associated with female stereotypes.
Total Jobs recently conducted some informative research that has helped many recruiters define different types of language to help them create and maintain inclusive job adverts. They reported that just one fifth of job adverts were ‘gender neutral’. They also found that women are less likely to apply for roles where the words ‘competitive’, ‘ambitious’, or ‘dominant’ are used. However, female-coded words such as ‘support’, ‘care’ and ‘commit’, are not as off putting to men, but are more appealing to women, according to the studies.
The Total Jobs report found over 2 million female and male biased words used throughout 350,000 job ads, or an average of 6 gender-coded words per ad.
How to create inclusive job adverts
If you’re looking to recruit more women, be thoughtful about what you include in your job adverts. It’s good to paint a picture of what it’s like to work at your company, sell the story of the workplace culture, the team dynamic, describe the benefits you offer and what you stand for. This is proven to be much more appealing than long lists of requirements or competencies.
The data has shown that men tend to sway more towards job adverts that are formatted into a sectional, segmented style with bullet points and long lists. Whereas, this highly structured format tends to discourage women from proceeding with an application.
Ultimately, it is best to use a balance between bullet point lists and chunks of text to work towards inclusive job adverts and attract the greatest level of applicant diversity.
WISE have created a guide to gender decoding job adverts, in which they advise companies to avoid language which ‘describes a singular focus or narrow set of abilities.’ Instead, they suggest that job adverts should highlight the company’s commitment to attracting and retaining female talent and include the organisation’s diversity statement.
This view is support by the STEM Women Whitepaper, released in August 2020, which surveyed female STEM students about why they chose certain career paths. 74% of respondents felt that diversity initiatives were either extremely or very important to them when researching potential employers.
When striving for inclusive job adverts, it is important to focus on what the performance objectives of the role are, and what the person is expected to accomplish. Emphasising some points as ‘desirable but not vital’ and promoting the importance of training and development within your organisation will help widen the pool of talent.
A study by Belgian researchers highlighted that women are also less likely to apply to job adverts that include personality requirements that are phrased in a task directed way, as opposed to a trait. For example, instead of writing ‘you are calm’, it is better to use ‘you always remain calm under pressure’. Such preference is linked to the way females are typically stereotyped.
It may seem tempting to use catchy or memorable job titles to help your advert stand out from the crowd, but many could have the opposite effect. Using words like ‘guru’, ‘superstar’ or ‘ninja’ can deter candidates who feel they do not fit in with this image. In general, phrases that have combative connotations, like ninja, can indicate a hostile working environment to applicants who do not fall within majority demographics. It is also a good idea to avoid using heavy jargon and strict seniority demands.
Using software to analyse language
Many companies have now taken inclusive recruitment to the next level by using artificial intelligence to scan language for gender bias. One of the largest companies offering this kind of intelligence is Textio, an augmented writing software.
Textio analyses job adverts in real time, highlighting any terms that could come across as particularly masculine or feminine. The software then suggests alternative words to help the text remain gender neutral.
This software has already seen positive results. An Australian software company looking to hire more women used Textio to write their job adverts and saw an 80% increase in the hiring of women in technical roles globally over a two-year period.
Using the software helped the company to avoid using phrases like ‘coding ninja’, which is seen as having a male bias, and shorten lengthy bullet pointed lists of requirements.
It is clear that data analytics and machine learning have enabled us to delve deeper into gendered language. Textio analysed more than 78,000 engineering jobs to determine how job listings with a more masculine tone can influence the number of women who apply. According to the findings, job applications for positions in machine intelligence and back-end engineering were far less likely to attract female applicants due to the wording.
Adrian Love, recruitment director for the UK and Ireland at Accenture, is a champion of using gender neutral language in recruitment. At Accenture, there has been an increase in female job applicants from 34% to 50% since 2014, thanks in part to the de-biasing of job descriptions. He explains: “The impact has been very positive. But there are no silver bullets here. It has to be part of a wider inclusion and diversity programme.”
It’s true that inclusive job adverts only go so far in solving the gender imbalance in sectors like STEM, however they are the first hurdle many recruiters have to overcome to work towards a gender balanced future.
By combining software and training for teams, many companies can make positive movements towards completely gender-neutral language in job specifications.
Adrian Love continues: “It’s not just about one action, it’s about looking at every element throughout the recruitment process. There are opportunities to drive inclusivity end to end, but job descriptions are important because they’re a gateway for candidates.”
At STEM Women, we’re on a mission to address the gender imbalance in STEM industries. We host a number of networking and careers events for female STEM students and graduates, alongside experienced events for women currently working in industry. Our events allow attendees to meet face-to-face (in person and online) with top employers and female role models, grow their professional networks, engage with skills sessions and hear inspirational talks and panel sessions. Visit our events page to find out more and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date with all the latest news and event information.
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