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Help wanted (preferably) female

Job advertisement highlights gender-based stereotypes

By Brian Kreissl 

Most readers will have heard about Toronto-based technology company Vestra Inet‎’s recent job advertisement for a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist. While there’s nothing unusual about that, the ad said the role involved some receptionist duties and, for that reason, female candidates were preferred. 

The problem was that even though the ad appeared to favour women, it was based on negative stereotypes about women being more willing to handle administrative duties than men. 

Understandably, quite a few people were upset about this, and the story went viral on social media and was picked up by several media outlets — both in Canada and internationally. The company has since apologized for this debacle and reiterated its commitment to diversity and non-discrimination in employment. 

My wife first told me about the story ‎and suggested I might want to do a blog post about it. I was initially skeptical, thinking this is just HR and employment law 101 and something every HR practitioner is aware of. So, end of story, right? 

At first glance, it does appear to be a pretty open-and-shut case. 

But it actually raises some interesting questions relating to gender stereotypes about jobs and situations where employers are somewhat more subtle about such discrimination. I would argue this type of thing happens all the time — even if very few employers actually come out and say it in the job advertisement. 

The biggest problem isn’t so much the blatant, intentional or direct discrimination this story illustrates, but rather the more insidious types of hidden, unintended or systemic discrimination that are far more common these days. Other than in very small mom and pop shops, most employers know they generally can’t include statements in their job postings that say they prefer candidates of a certain gender, race, religion or ethnic background. 

Subconscious images of ‘ideal’ candidate 

But that doesn’t mean employers don’t discriminate against candidates, for example, based on their gender. Even in cases where recruiters and hiring managers have no intention to discriminate and organizations have a real and meaningful commitment to diversity, people can have a subconscious image of the “ideal” candidate in mind that reflects gender stereotypes. 

There is no question men and women tend to flock to certain jobs. For whatever reason, there are more female nurses, elementary school teachers and social workers, and a larger percentage of men are employed as engineers and software developers. 

HR itself is a profession that’s hardly balanced with respect to gender. However, other professions such as law and medicine are more gender-neutral. 

It’s very difficult to combat such prejudices when people aren’t even consciously aware they are stereotyping people based on their gender. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to confront stereotypes and be aware of them, ensure we use gender-neutral language and have an environment that’s supportive of everyone — regardless of their backgrounds. 

While things have started to change, there’s no question men in general still have the upper hand in the labour market. The wage gap between women and men remains stubbornly large, and there’s still a dearth of women in senior executive and board positions and many higher-paid functions and professions. 

Sexism in the workplace 

Sexism definitely still exists in the job market. Two examples from my recruitment days immediately come to mind. Both relate to hiring managers at two different organizations who specifically requested more female candidates. 

It seemed to me the first individual would ask for female candidates simply because he wanted to work with and have attractive women in certain roles. However, the second hiring manager really wanted to interview some female candidates because he thought having one or two women on his team enhanced the functioning of the team and believed it improved the level of decorum among the men he worked with. 

While the first situation is completely unacceptable, in my mind, some might argue the second example actually illustrates that manager’s commitment to diversity. 

That particular hiring manager never told me to send him only female candidates. He actually didn’t do anything different from what many employers do on an organizational level when they require at least one female or diverse candidate to be interviewed for each vacancy. 

He also recognized some of the advantages of having a diverse team, and I personally wouldn’t hold it against him for requesting more female candidates. But what do you think?

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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