The wording of an employment ad can be a crucial factor in determining whether the job goes to a woman or a man.
Women feel less inclined to respond to ads containing words such as “determined” and “assertive” because these are linked with male stereotypes, found researchers at the Technische Universität München in Germany.
In studying how leaders are selected and assessed, the researchers showed 260 test subjects — largely students — fictional employment ads. These included, for example, a place in a training program for potential management positions. If the posting described a large number of traits stereotypically associated with men — “assertive,” “independent,” “aggressive” and “analytical” — the women found it less appealing and were less inclined to apply.
On the other hand, women found words such as “dedicated,” “responsible,” “conscientious” and “sociable” more appealing. For men, the wording in the ads made no difference.
“For the women, it makes a difference which (words) we use,” said Claudia Peus, a professor at the university who headed the study. “The tendency to apply and feel attracted by the job ad is lower for women because it’s in a male-worded way. However, for the men, it doesn’t make a difference — in other words, we’re not losing the men when we use more female language.”
Similar findings were outlined in a 2011 paper from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and Duke University in Durham, N.C. It found job ads for male-dominated areas used greater masculine wording (words associated with male stereotypes such as “leader,” “competitive” and “dominant”) than ads for female-dominated areas.
There was no difference, however, with the presence of feminine words (such as “support,” “understand” and “interpersonal”) in all areas, found Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality.
And when jobs ads included more masculine wording, participants perceived more men within these occupations while women found the jobs less appealing.
In the 1960s, job ads posted in the New York Times were segregated into “male wanted” and “female wanted” sections, said Danielle Gaucher, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, who was involved with the University of Waterloo study.
And even though this blatant form of bias no longer exists today, job ads still contain cues — just more subtle cues — that signal to jobseekers who best belongs in the occupation.
“While gender-segregated job headings are a thing of the past, the biases in ads have simply gone underground — becoming more subtle but still a potent force of gender segregation.”
The terms we use, the adjectives we use, matter, said Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada in Toronto, an organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business.
Research done by Catalyst several years ago — involving interviews with 120 leaders around the world — revealed a list of characteristics associated with men and women, she said. The top three for men — decisive, a problem-solving focus and goal-oriented — were also the top three associated with leaders, by both men and women.
“Women and men perceived these core leadership characteristics as ones they associated with men,” said Johnston. “All of these things are things that companies aren’t setting out to do deliberately but once you actually provide the evidence, they have the opportunity to start to go back and look at patterns and go, ‘Hmm, actually, when I do look at the files that we’re allocating, there is a gender issue and we need to address that because we want people to have a fair shot.’”
In talking to stakeholder groups about apprenticeship training, there’s always discussion around inclusive language, said Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum in Ottawa, citing as an example use of the terms “tradesmen” or “journeymen.”
“More inclusive language leads to an idea that ‘I belong’ rather than ‘You’re already telling me I don’t belong before I’ve even considered whether I want to,’” she said. “Language and the way we talk about the skills requirements and the way we talk about inclusivity is an important element.”
Perceptions of belongingness — such as “I fit in” or “I’m similar to the people” — but not perceived skills mediated the effect of gendered wording on job appeal, found the University of Waterloo study.
“I suspect that women are more vigilant to cues that they may be discriminated against or unwelcomed because they may, on average, have experienced greater discrimination in the past,” said Gaucher.
But it’s unlikely people are purposely infusing advertisements with masculine wording to keep women out, she said.
“The smart companies know that diversity is the key to innovation and success and they want to attract the best person for the job, man or woman. I think many companies would be appalled to think that their ads could be inadvertently warding off qualified women.”
There’s no purposeful attempt being made to discriminate but in an environment that’s been largely made up of men for generations, this bias just comes out, said Watts-Rynard.
“The awareness that the use of the words could have a negative affect is probably something that we’ve got to make sure employers have,” she said.
“Is it being structured in a way that is really inclusive or are you being exclusive without even realizing it? Those are things that employers — particularly in skilled trades but probably in many sectors — really struggle with. It’s just a matter of ‘It’s always been done this way and we’ve found somebody and now we can’t,’ and we’re trying to constantly draw some focus to what could be the reason.”
Headhunting firms inquiring about the German study have indicated they are “absolutely” not aware of the bias in the recruitment ads, said Peus.
“I’ve gotten more and more requests to help them rephrase (them), especially ads for any kind of leadership positions,” she said. “That’s the good news — those things are very easy to change once you’re aware of them.”
A carefully formulated job posting is essential to find the best choice of personnel, said Peus, who is also chair of research and science management at the university in Munich.
“In most cases, it doesn’t make sense to simply leave out all of the male-sounding phrases. But without a profile featuring at least balanced wording, organizations are robbing themselves of the chance of attracting good female applicants. And that’s because the stereotypes endure almost unchanged in spite of all of the societal transformation we have experienced.”
Recognizing that advertisements can contain subtle cues that convey who best belongs is the first step in rectifying the problem, said Gaucher.
“The next step is making sure that people charged with crafting the advertisements do so consciously — paying attention to the insights that social psychologists have uncovered about what might inadvertently ward off women,” she said.
“Removing the incidental ‘masculine’ theme words is a step in the right direction… but also explicitly stating the company’s family-friendly policies within the advertisements (such as flexible hours, onsite and/or subsidized child care) is a great way to attract qualified women.”
But there’s still a long way to go and the solution could extend beyond the workplace, said Watts-Rynard.
“As a society, we still tell girls and boys different things about their capacities and we can’t expect all of that to go away overnight: ‘Now you’re in the workforce so none of the things you’ve been taught for the last 20 years make a difference anymore and you’re on equal ground.’ If we haven’t said that all the way along, then it’s something we have to teach right from the beginning, that ‘assertive’ is OK as a way to describe the girl.”
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