The Language of Job Listings

A recent analysis finds job listings for many of the fastest-growing roles and industries use predominantly "female" language that deters men from applying and thus limits the candidate pool. What can HR do to prevent gender bias -- conscious or unconscious -- in job descriptions?

By Mark McGraw

Choose your words carefully.

This is generally good advice in any situation, but a recent analysis of job-listing terminology suggests that the language used to describe a role can go a long way in determining who applies for it -- and who doesn't.

In January, the New York Times' Claire Cain Miller pondered what she calls "one of the biggest economic riddles today": the lack of unemployed men pursuing jobs in industries that are among the fastest-growing, such as healthcare.

One significant factor, Cain Miller wrote, is that "these so-called pink-collar jobs are mostly done by women, and that turns off some men."

On the heels of Cain Miller's Times piece, Seattle-based software provider Textio took its own look at this conundrum, examining the terminology used in listings for the 14 fastest-growing jobs between the years 2014 and 2024. That analysis found the descriptions for these positions predominantly rely on "feminine" language, which, not surprisingly, the company says attracts female candidates. This type of wording, according to Textio, can also deter some male candidates from applying, and has helped contribute to an overabundance of out-of-work men and potentially lucrative jobs going unfilled at least partly because they're perceived as being "women's work."

It's worth noting that the software Textio provides is designed to, in the company's own words, "optimize job listings for more qualified and diverse applicants." According to a spokesperson, Textio "discovers which phrases are most likely to bias a job description [as either] masculine or feminine, based on 70 million real-world outcomes, and then gives people advice on how to get the description to gender neutral."

Still, its analysis finds some compelling evidence to support the notion that language matters in job listings.

The number of home health aides, for example, is projected to grow by 38 percent by the year 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics., females hold 89 percent of these positions, according to the BLS. The job listings for home health aides -- which Textio found to be the most "feminine"-sounding—commonly contain key words such as "sympathetic," "care," "fosters," "empathy" and "families," and are more appealing to female applicants, according to Textio's analysis. Textio found the job descriptions and requirements for many other predominately female-held roles -- nurse practitioner, genetic counselor and physician assistant, for instance -- frequently include similar key words and phrases.

On the other hand are cartography jobs, which are projected to increase by 29 percent in the next seven years, according to the BLS, noting that men currently comprise 62 percent of the profession. In evaluating the wording typically used to advertise these jobs, Textio found "masculine" terms such as "manage," "forces," "exceptional," "proven" and "superior" were often thrown around.

Gender bias in job descriptions "is an important topic that goes all the way back to how we have always viewed jobs and roles in relation to gender," says Debra Jerome, chief human resources officer at Oak Brook, Ill.-based executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

Naturally, HR professionals have a duty to help the organization attract a diverse pool of applicants for job openings. Jerome suggests taking a number of steps to help reduce gender bias in job listings, such as talking to senior leaders and hiring managers about the diversity, or lack thereof, in your current workforce.

"Can you identify a position that might include a disproportionate percentage of one gender?" she asks. "If so, review the position description and modify it to ensure it has gender-neutral language."

In its recent analysis, Textio recommends a similar, gender-neutral approach, replacing words such as "world-class" and "rock star" with terms such as "premier" and "extraordinary."

Other commonly used phrases -- "team player," for instance -- might unwittingly send signals to job candidates, adds Jamie Dolkas, director of women's leadership and an adjunct assistant professor of law at the University of California Hastings Center for WorkLife Law.

Such terms "speak to more deeply seated and complex questions about gender roles in the workplace," says Dolkas.

"For example, women are often expected to be more communal, to be team players," she continues. That said, "there's research suggesting that phrases associated with athletics -- like team player -- tend to attract men to job descriptions. The truth is, if you don't have a background in linguistics, it can tough to predict [who's going to respond to a given job listing]."

Jerome urges HR leaders to designate someone within the organization and partnering with him or her to review job descriptions and ensure they contain the type of language that draws a diverse slate of applicants. 

"This could be someone in HR, or you could consider working with your marketing communications team to balance the language -- and to give [job descriptions] more pizazz," she says, adding that HR and department managers should review position descriptions annually.

Ultimately, bias -- conscious or unconscious -- limits the talent pool "and thus likely reduces competence," says Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the Provo, Utah-based RBL Group.

"Anything [done] to reduce bias in hiring -- auditing musicians behind a screen, for instance -- upgrades talent," says Ulrich. "So, using gender-neutral language helps expand the talent pool."

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Feb 7, 2017
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