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Language and Unconcious Gender Bias

Updated: May 17

Perez’s premise is that words like “ambitious”, “persistent” and “competitive” in job descriptions are associated with masculine stereotypes and, while it might not be a conscious decision, using these words stops women from putting themselves forward for a role.

Equally, when we as headhunters use these words when asking our market sources for candidate recommendations, we may be stopping people from suggesting women.

Whereas, using words like “enthusiasm” and “innovation” for the same role, is said to increase women’s interest in the position, and will also make people more likely to recommend a woman. Perez cites several examples including one from a European company where applications from women increased from 5% to 40% simply by changing the language for the same role.

How many of us think about the way we describe a role in order to attract women as well as men to the position?  How many of us ask our clients consistently to change how they describe the job so it can appeal to female talent?   While most clients are keen to attract diverse short lists, they often undermine this goal with the specific language choices they use in job descriptions or advertisements. As Perez says, “you don’t have to realise you’re being discriminated against to in fact be discriminated against”.  Rather than bemoan this, we should all be making changes to ensure that we attract the broadest spectrum of candidates for our clients (and our own company too).

Actually, fixing this seems relatively simple.   As headhunters, we can make sure we can use language when market sourcing that attracts both men and women – it’s an easy win and will make for a more diverse short list.   A google search brings up hundreds of websites which details the words that might appeal differently to men and women.  The same applies to job descriptions to make them more gender equal.  Talking to clients about this and getting their buy-in should also be fairly straight forward – diversity in the work-place is a well-trodden topic for us all and clients usually respond well when we highlight this.   Then, as the interview process matures, making sure key stakeholders verbalise the role differently to male and female candidates may be a nuance worth remembering too.

Before we steam ahead into female stereotype language, we must remember that we still want to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of talent, and that does include men as well!

Interestingly, a study and research piece by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay for the American Psychological Association in 2011 regarding Gendered wording in Job Advertisements, comments in their findings that using more feminine words would appeal to far more women but would only have a small adverse effect on men applying, whereas the other way round (using more masculine words) would result in far fewer women applying.  In sum, gender themed words impact women more than men.

So now I know the impact our language has, I will aim to choose my words more carefully!

Author: Alice Harris Last edited 16th July 2021


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