How to Avoid Gender Bias in Job Descriptions

Whether you are seeking a job and reading through role descriptions or writing job descriptions yourself to find fresh talent, be aware of a few language subtleties linguistic experts say may subconsciously prevent you from applying for a job — and can make a job opening seem gender-specific.

Author: Michelle Russell       

gender bias

Words used in job descriptions can reflect gender bias, according to a recent BBC article.

“The Great Resignation” is upon us, with American workers quitting their jobs at record rates — 4 million in April alone. Perhaps you’re among those contemplating a move and checking out job listings or you’ve had someone leave your team and you need to hire a replacement. In either case, you should pay particular attention to the wording in job postings you’re reading — and writing, if you want to be gender neutral in your approach.

That’s because the verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and phrases used in job descriptions can reflect gender bias, according to a recent BBC article. Gender researchers talk about the differences between agentic and communal language and behaviors: Agentic is associated with confidence and decisiveness; to be communal is to be warm and helpful. Even in progressive countries, according to the article, men still are perceived as more agentic, while women continue to be viewed as more communal. Much of the language around certain types of jobs skews toward agency, “sending, intended or not, a gender-coded message about who the ideal candidate is.”

Erin Oldford, an assistant professor of finance at Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland, told the BBC that male-coded language is rife in finance internship postings, sending “subtle signals of welcome to stereotypically masculine applicants.” Here is an agentic example and a communal example from actual job posts.

Agentic: “Tell us your story. Don’t go unnoticed. Explain why you’re a winning candidate.”

Communal: “We’ll support you with the tools and resources you need to reach new milestones, as you help our customers reach theirs.”

See the difference?

In a study Oldford conducted with a colleague, they found that women felt they were a better fit and more interested in applying for the jobs that were high in communal — and low in agentic — language.

This phenomenon is not specific to finance jobs. One multi-field study inspired behavioral designer Kat Matfield to create an online tool called Gender Decoder in 2011, which allows users to paste in the text of a job advertisement, to quickly determine the possible presence of subtle gender bias.

Gender bias doesn’t stop there, the article points out. When a job candidate is a woman, “hiring decisions are more likely to be factor in their sociability (‘friendly’) and morality (‘trustworthy’) as well, compared to male candidates.” They not only have to prove their competence, but “they have to clear the peculiar extra hurdle of demonstrating that they’re good people, too,” the BBC article points out.

Once on Board

Gender bias, of course, doesn’t end with the hiring process. Research on performance evaluations suggests that different words are used to describe how men and women perform on the job. In a recent study by research associate Alison T. Wynn and colleagues at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, it was found that six out of 10 times, when communal terms were used in performance evaluations for a Silicon Valley internet services company, they were being applied to women. Moreover, these communal descriptors were meant to be positive, but did not translate into higher ratings. For instance, women were praised for being helpful but that was not a behavior that was highly valued.

Wynn advises organizations to avoid descriptors of personality and communication style — these are areas where gender and racial bias creeps in. And when it comes to performance reviews, it’s best to tie everything to business impact.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.