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To recruit more women, companies must first watch their language

Posted by Kanika Sinha

August 13, 2021    |     3-minute read (885 words)

Hidden sexism in workplace language could not only be holding back women’s career advancement, it could also deter female candidates from seeking employment with your business. In today’s competitive market for top talent, unconsidered word choices could be putting you at a disadvantage.

For example, a 2019 LinkedIn report found that including the word “aggressive” in a job description would discourage 44% of women from applying for the position. Masculine-oriented job descriptions such as “ninja,” “rockstar” and “hacker” would also steer women away from considering a company, the study found. Such language also erodes engagement among existing female employees.

The agentic-communal proposition persists

Most countries, even ones deemed progressive, to some degree still hold on to the idea that men should be agentic and that women should be communal. An agentic person is confident and ambitious, while a communal person is caring and helpful.

Much of the language used today in company job postings is underpinned by these assumptions. Employers, whether consciously or not, often send subtle gender-coded messages about the attributes of their ideal job candidates. Without conscious effort, gendered language can feed into all aspects of the workplace, beyond hiring to performance evaluations and promotions. 

Communal language Agentic language
We’ll support you with the tools and resources you need to reach new milestones, as you help our customers reach theirs. Tell us your story. Don’t go unnoticed. Explain why you’re a winning candidate.
You deserve a lot of credit for this project. We’re going to work late every night this week and crush this project.
I understand you need to extend the deadline to attend to a family emergency I need you to man up.
Job posting bias

A study newly published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Finance found that the use of agentic language is pervasive in finance internship postings. This indirectly sends welcoming signals to stereotypically competitive and masculine applicants. Women often perceive a better fit with positions described with communal terms like “interpersonal” and “understand.”

Literature by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds similar practices in the IT sector. The prevalence of male-oriented language and masculine words in IT job listings leads women to view the industry as unwelcoming and to avoid applying for tech positions.

The National Academies also found subtle gender bias in job postings is rife in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering and computer science. Examples of male-coded words include competitive, confident, analyze, active and lead. Examples of female-coded words include supportive, understanding, establish, dependable and committed.

Hiring process bias

Even with a diverse pool of applicants, recruiters may use gender-coded words and views that inform hiring decisions. 

A study published by Oxford University Press suggests that when the job candidate is a woman, hiring decisions are more likely to factor in their sociability (traits such as openness) and morality (traits such as trustworthiness). In contrast, hiring evaluations of male candidates tend to be based on their perceived competence. 

The gendered language of recruiters creates an extra hurdle for female candidates, requiring them to demonstrate that they’re friendly in addition to qualified.

Performance review bias

Instead of being meritocratic, the performance evaluation process often has baked-in gender bias. Evaluators inadvertently exhibit gendered attitudes, like using different words to describe male and female job performance. This not only limits women’s ability to be promoted, but also hinders retention. 

A team of researchers at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab analyzed the entire text of performance evaluations conducted at a Fortune 500 technology company. Their study found that 61% of the time when communal terms were used, they were being applied to female employees. 

Women were praised more by managers for being helpful. But communal descriptors did not translate into higher ratings for women.

Also, when certain words were applied to female and male employees at the same rate, they were weighed differently. Behaviors such as “taking charge” were assigned more value for men than for women. Male employees were rewarded for “taking charge” while female employees received no benefit. 

Women were also more likely to receive comments suggesting that they were too aggressive and overly controlling. Men tended to be criticized for being “soft-spoken.”

Here’s what companies can do

Making simple but deliberate changes in the language content of your job postings, internal communication and performance reviews can help you attract and retain women in your organization.

To make job postings more inclusive

Use straightforward job titles and descriptions that resonate with a diverse pool of prospects. Remove language that tends to alienate female applicants by:

  • Avoiding gendered terms like “salesman” or “waitresses.”
  • Dropping words that prevent feelings of belongingness. 
  • Minimizing language classically associated with agency.
You can also consider using artificial intelligence-based tech to remove unconsciously biased language. Companies like Cisco and Atlassian use the Textio app to create gender-neutral job postings that have helped them hire more women for technical roles.

To make performance reviews fairer:

While it’s tough to overturn ingrained gender stereotypes in the evaluation process, just being more thoughtful about your language can make your organization more female-friendly. Recommendations include:

  • Using precise performance feedback with grounded, specific comments for employees, regardless of gender.
  • Avoiding descriptors of personality and communication style and sticking to results-focused metrics.

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