Struggling to Attract Female Talent? It Could Be Your Job Description.

Let’s say you’re a 40-year-old mother of two, leafing through job ads for a management position in marketing. You’re highly qualified, with eight years in leadership roles and plenty of industry experience. A job heading catches your attention, and you begin to read the description: We’re seeking competitive, independent individuals for a challenging position. Looking for ambitious marketing ninjas with 10 years of leadership experience…

You stop reading.

Not only do you lack the requisite “10 years of leadership experience,” this job listing doesn’t seem to be written for you. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you’re certain that you’re not the right candidate for the job.

You move on.

This is not just a hypothetical story. Too often, companies fail to recruit talented women because of the language and perceived requirements embedded in their job descriptions. This is concerning on many levels, and companies need to pay attention.

The fact is language matters. Wording matters. Let’s dive in and talk about how terminology and subtext can either attract or deter job candidates (there are studies to back this up!), the brain science behind this, and what you can do to address the problem.

Language Matters

First, we need to establish a basic premise: language is often gendered OR has gender implications. This goes beyond avoiding he/him pronouns or gendered terms such as “salesman” or “businessman” (although that’s important too). Certain terms are interpreted as being more masculine or feminine. Masculine-coded words include outspoken, aggressive, self-confident/self-confidence, dominant, and many more. Feminine-coded words include understanding, responsive, collaborative, nurturing, and more.

We might not consciously think of a word as being masculine or feminine, but our unconscious bias does that for us. In a well-known study conducted by professors at the University of Waterloo and Duke University, participants were divided into two groups (of mixed genders) and given various job descriptions. One group was given job listings with overt masculine words/terminology; the other group was given nearly identical job listings, except these were infused with feminine words/terminology. The participants were then asked to determine whether a job was geared more toward men or women, and whether or not the job listing appealed to them personally. The findings were clear.

When job listings included more masculine language, study participants viewed them as being geared toward men (this was even true for traditionally female occupations, such as nursing). Female participants also found that these jobs were “less appealing” to them.

Remarkably, male participants felt that they belonged in the various positions even when the listing was largely infused with “feminine language.” This likely has something to do with the very real confidence gap between men and women. Studies show that women usually only apply to a job if they meet 100% of the listed requirements. However, men tend to apply for jobs even if they only meet 60% of the requirements.

If you work in company leadership, recruitment, or HR, this statistic should give you pause. Are all the “required” qualifications in your job postings really requirements? Or are they nice-to-have features? If a candidate has eight years of leadership experience instead of 10, is that a dealbreaker? Or could there be some exceptions? Are any of the requirements actually skills that could be learned on the job?

These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves as we put together job postings. It’s also useful to understand the implicit bias that tends to show up in job descriptions.

Brain Science and Unconscious Bias

Our brains are constantly taking in information, processing a staggering 11 million bits of information every second. However, our conscious minds can only process about 40–50 bits of information per second. That’s a LOT of filtering! To aid with the filtering process, we tend to take cognitive shortcuts. We might unconsciously label something as good or bad, safe or dangerous, friendly or hostile without realizing it.

This unconscious labeling can be linked to the amygdala — that part of our brain tied to our fight or flight impulse. Studies show that the amygdala, along with other brain regions, tends to form unconscious biases. In the past, these biases aided in our species’ survival, but today they can lead to harmful, discriminatory actions (whether we realize it or not!).

For example, we are innately geared to have “likeness bias.” Your brain subconsciously says, “This person is like me; therefore, they are likely to be a friend and not a threat.”

These implicit biases show up in the business world through actions like hiring or promoting people who look like you, share your interests, attended your alma mater, etc. When you hear someone say, “I just have a ‘good feeling’ about this person,” that is a good indication their unconscious bias is kicking in.

Fortunately, we can retrain our brains. We now know the brain is not some rigid, implacable thing; it is highly moldable (brain scientists refer to this as neuroplasticity) and we can teach ourselves to recognize bias and overcome it.

3 Steps to Overcome Bias and Improve Job Listings

1. Educate

You can’t change a harmful behavior if you don’t know it’s happening in the first place! It is imperative to educate leadership teams, recruiters, and HR professionals about the implicit bias that tends to show up in job ads. We need to take this seriously and emphasize the importance of using bias-free language at all stages of the recruitment process, including stage one: the job ad.

Share relevant studies with your team. Link to this article. Start the conversation. It is critical to not just sit on this information, but take action.

2. Evaluate

To start actively reworking your company’s job listings, it’s important to evaluate current or past job descriptions and look for bias, gendered language or terms, or “requirements” that are actually “nice-to-haves.”

To help with this evaluation, it’s a great idea to assemble a diverse team to begin looking over the job descriptions. You can also use several online tools to analyze your postings and identify biased or problematic terms. One excellent tool is the Gender Decoder by Kat Matfield or Eploy’s Check My Job.

3. Rework

Evaluation, of course, is not enough. After identifying problematic language or requirements in job postings you’ll have to rewrite them. If possible, assemble a diverse group of people to rewrite your job descriptions. This will help mitigate the “likeness bias” we discussed earlier and open the process to various perspectives and ideas.

When you rewrite, avoid gendered job titles (use chairperson instead of chairman, expert instead of master, spokesperson instead of spokesman, etc.) and opt for gender-neutral or even feminine-coded language whenever possible (remember, studies have found that feminine language does not deter men from applying for jobs). Eliminate any qualifications that are not strictly necessary, or list them as “optional.”

Consider including a statement about your company’s commitment to inclusion and diversity and/or promoting your company’s values. You may also want to highlight any family-friendly benefits offered by your organization.

Writing job listings is just one part of the recruitment and hiring process, but it is absolutely critical. To attract top female talent, it’s important to send signals of inclusiveness and belonging right out of the gate. Bias may often be unconscious, but that doesn’t mean we can’t confront it, educate ourselves and others, and strive to improve. Reworking your company’s job descriptions is a great place to start.

To learn more about how you can amplify female talent, visit our website.

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The Disruptive Element is a leadership performance company. We are coaches, consultants and executives who bring a been-there-done-that perspective to clients.