How to avoid gender bias in job postings
by Erin Oldford, Assistant Professor of Finance, Memorial University of Newfoundland; and John Fiset, Assistant Professor, Management, Saint Mary’s University
The language used in job postings may play a role in discouraging or dissuading women from applying for positions.
Experts say there’s a number of reasons for these imbalances, including an overly masculine culture, gender stereotypes, scarcity of role models for women and perceptions of poor work-life balance across various male-dominated industries.
Whether organizations are doing so because they’ve recognized the practical benefits of gender diversity or they’re responding to external pressures — including investors pushing for gender representation — companies around the world have responded by investing substantial resources into recruiting and retaining women.
These efforts have resulted in a range of diversity and inclusion initiatives, including offers of a wide range of benefits and mentorship opportunities for recently hired employees. Regardless of these changes, however, progress on achieving gender parity continues to move slowly.
Appealing directly to women
These continued gender parity challenges reinforce the need to rebrand corporate communications to signal the explicit recruitment of women. There’s also a pressing need to demonstrate that working in these fields will allow women to pursue and achieve their career goals.
In this move towards rebranding, recruitment strategies around paid internships, particularly job postings, are a critical first step.
That’s because internships offer candidates a relatively low-stakes opportunity to gain experience in a particular industry. They also provide organizations with critical access to job candidates who have completed internships and who want to continue working with the organization. Those employees have already had a realistic preview of the work they’ll be doing as well as the organizational culture, a benefit to both employer and employee.
The power of words
Job postings also provide an opportunity for organizations to advertise for an open position and highlight the benefits of working for the company in a way that attracts potential applicants. But we’re well aware of the power of words, and the language used in job postings may play a role in discouraging or dissuading women from applying for positions.
Previous research suggests that men and women respond differently to agentic language (which is self-oriented and focuses on power and achievement) and communal language (which focuses on harmony and collaboration) language, with men identifying more with agentic and women with communal goals.
Using an established dictionary of agentic and communal words, we assessed the language of internship job postings in a male-dominated industry. We find that agentic language continued to permeate internship job postings across the financial services industry, even those nationally recognized for their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
This creates a significant mismatch, since women feel a stronger sense of fit with the position and are more interested in applying when job postings include higher levels of communal language.
The main takeaway from our study is that excessive agentic language in job postings discourages female applicants by diminishing the appeal of the position, consequently slowing down any progress towards gender diversity in male-dominated industries.
Curb subtle gender bias
Our research shows that aspiring female applicants are highly attuned to the ways in which job postings describe the available positions and the company’s organizational culture. We’ve found that gendered language in job postings plays a role in the systemic gender imbalance in male-dominated industries.
Companies interested in recruiting more women should pay closer attention to language in job postings as a first step to reducing this subtle form of gender bias. That means organizations should prioritize communal rather than agentic language and goals.
We encourage organizations to extend this concept beyond job postings to other areas where potential applicants seek out information about the company, like websites and annual reports.
So instead of this kind of agentic phrasing:
• Benefit from an independent and goal-oriented culture that provides the foundation for your success.
• Company X is looking for keen, responsible and capable individuals eager to succeed.
• You will capably contribute to the company’s hard-won reputation.
Consider this kind of communal phrasing:
• Benefit from our inclusive culture that supports the group while also respecting conversation and debate.
• We appreciate self-learners with strong interpersonal skills.
• As a valued member of our team, we will work together to develop a shared culture of inclusivity, loyalty and trust.
The bottom line
Effective communications for the recruitment of a diverse workforce demands careful attention to the language used in job postings.
Otherwise, our research shows that organizations may unknowingly alienate a significant portion of the workforce.
By recognizing and removing subtle forms of biased language that deter women from applying, organizations can take an important first step to attract a more gender-diverse workforce and improve their competitiveness in the job market.