Objective champions & compassionate enthusiasts – Gendered wording in job ads

A larger Swedish consulting company recently claimed that “A simple change in recruitment ads significantly increased women applicants”.

“Wow”, I thought, “that’s so 2017”. I remember the first wave of claims like this when I was working at a larger German automotive supplier. We had a job advertisement “scanner” in our diversity tool box – rumors had it that the scanner would highlight male words so that you could change them to something more female. Which in turn was supposed to make more women apply. Even today, some companies offer paid services on improving your ads, other tools are readily available online or you can just check out the original word list here.

I got exited about the claim by the Swedish consulting company – especially since they wrote in there press release that there were “a number of studies […] [showing that] the presence of masculine gendered words discourages women from applying to male-dominated roles, as they can make women feel they don’t belong in that work environment.” 

Maybe that actually was true. Maybe much has changed since 2017 and new research had been published to find a causal link between carefully gendered job ads and higher application numbers of female candidates.

Spoiler alert – nothing had changed.

Please note: this is a post tagged with “Draft” which means that I am still working on it. Let me know in the comments if you have input or feedback so far.

Following the asterix behind “a number of studies” led me to one source – Gaucher, Friesen & Kay, 2011 [1]. Does this source show that “the presence of masculine gendered words discourages women from applying to male-dominated roles, as they can make women feel they don’t belong in that work environment.”? Or in more practical terms: should you spend you resources on skimming through your job ads to increase the number of female applicants?

Let’s deep-dive into this.

The original research

One of the first studies investigating the importance of framing recruitment messages was done by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay in 2011 [1]). Actually, the publication consists of five studies all looking at two different questions: are there differences in the wording of real job ads and do differences affect potential applicants when it comes to how they perceive the employer and their own attitudes.

Looking at the title of the research itself reveals that Gaucher, Friesen and Kay never made that claim themselves: Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality. Or in easier words: they wanted to proof that there were differences in the way we phrase job ads and that this generally affects gender inequality. Nothing about discouragement of women when it comes to the application process.

Were there a difference in real job ads wording?

The short answer: Yes. But it`s a vanishingly small difference.

The longer answer: The mean percentage of gendered job ads found (1,493 in Study 1 plus 3,640 in Study 2) was 1%! That´s 1 word in 100. Note here though that for some occupations this number was higher, for example for engineers (11%) and computer programmers (9%). An unpublished more recent analysis [2] says to have found similar effects for ads from 2017.

Per se this doesn´t relate to any recommendation for your work with recruitment postings. But it´s interesting to keep in mind for the effects that are measured in the following studies. Job advertisements in the experiments contained 7-8% gendered wording, which is much higher than the mean from the real life examples.

How did these differences affect research participants?

Surprisingly enough, that was not what the researchers for the original research looked at. In easy words, participants were shown different job ads that varied in the amount of gendered wording used and then had to answer questions about their perceptions. Below you find an overview with the questions asked across studies three to five.

  • Diversity perception
    • “How many women (…) work in this company?”
    • “How many women (…) work in the position being advertised?””
  • Job Appeal
    • “This job is appealing”;
    • “I think I could enjoy this job”;
    • “This is not a job I would want,”
    • “This company would be a good employer”;
    • “This job looks interesting”
    • “This company seems like a great place to work”
  • Belongingness
    • “I could fit in well at this company”
    • “I’m similar to the people who work in this career”
    • “My values and this company’s values are similar”
    • “The type of people who would apply for this job are very different from me”
  • Personal skill for the job
    • “I could perform well at this job”
    • “If I had this job I would definitely succeed at it”
    • “If I had this job there is a good chance I would fail at it” (if cited directly, add pages)

As mentioned, none of these questions actually directly investigated how likely it is that candidates will apply for a job. In any way, let´s have a look at the effects that were found. And remember: the question we are asking is: does gendered wording make a difference for females compared to males.

What do I make out of these results?

Since the study is set-up as an experiment, it is more likely that there is a causal link between the words used in the job advertisement and attitudes of the participants. You will find some reports saying that when job ads used non-gendered language, they received 40% more applicants. Be aware that these studies usually are correlational in nature, that is you can not determine if it was the gendered language that made a difference, if there were more candidates attracted to particular jobs or if there was another factor playing into the increase of applications. There was a difference, you changed the wording in your ads, but you do not know why the number of applications from female candidates changed.

Experiments raise concerns about the external validity (=the extend to which you can generalize the findings of the study), something that the authors also address in their paper. Even if the results were statistically significant, the effects were small (Numbers from original research will be added here). Another limitation is the study participants: all of them were Canadian-born introductory psychology students, so this might not compare to the applicants that you want to attract in your recruitment processes.

As with all research, it’s a contribution to answering a question but not the final answer to our question. Did other authors produce similar findings? Did the study replicate? I could only find one unpublished study that directly tried to replicate Gaucher et al. (2011), however only the first two studies, and found similar differences in gendered wording in job ads from 2017 [3]. A word of caution: since it´s unpublished, I could not verify this.

If your job posting contains only one gendered word, rephrasing it does not make a difference to candidate attitudes. On the other hand, changing it does not require a lot of resources and it feels like a smart thing to do.

Think about this. When was the last time a word kept you from doing something your really wanted? Words are always embedded in the wider context of a sentence, a paragraph and a whole text. Consider the following examples.

We challenge the bold to be humbled, the high achievers to take a break and the introverts to find their individual way to speak up.

We are bold challengers without the need to be humbled, high achievers who do not need breaks and introverts will have a challenging time to express themselves.

There were some other interesting studies that I want to briefly summarise here

Is it worth the effort?

It really depends.

Do you want to use gendered wording in job ads because you think it’s the right thing to do – be my guest.

Do you have limited resources and need to identify one or several interventions that will help you increase your number of female applicants? Well, gendered job ads might not be the right thing for you – at least this causal relationship of gendered wording and application numbers is not backed of by scientific research. If you don’t care about that evidence, that’s fine. Just make sure that you are not claiming that your intervention is backed up by several studies and then cite Gaucher.

In practise, what would be exciting is an A/B testing of two versions of your ads – both advertised at the same time and in the same channels. Maybe by having one link and then viewers randomly get one of your versions. A bit similar to product testing. This way you could collect your own evidence and make informed decisions about if you should do this for all your job advertisements.

And finally: changing words in your job ad most probably won’t change your culture.

Are there alternatives?

Gendered wording in job advertisements sends the wrong message. | The Predictive Index –> go gender neutral instead of gendered “For instance, a woman with an assertive personality may have an appreciation for masculine words and be turned off by more feminine language. So simply switching from “masculine” to “feminine” language may not be an appropriate solution to the problem. What, then, is the solution? If you find yourself writing a job advertisement, go gender neutral. The amount of gendered language in most job ads is small. It’s enough to impact a potential applicant but small enough to easily replace with gender-neutral terms. By making this simple swap, you can help combat systematic gender inequality.”

Writing Gender Neutral Job Ads (womeninrecruitment.org)

References

[1] Gaucher, D., Friesen, J., & Kay, A. C. (2011). Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(1), 109-128. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0022530.

[2] Pietraszkiewicz, Agnieszka; Formanowicz, Magdalena M.; Müller, Petra; Sczesny, Sabine (1 June 2019). Agency and communion in job advertisements: A replication study (Unpublished). In: 19th EAWOP Congress (European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology) – “Working for the greater good: Inspiring people, designing jobs and leading organizations for a more inclusive society”. Turin, Italy. 29.05.-01.06.2019.

[3] Pietraszkiewicz, A., & Formanowicz, M. (2019, December 31). Monster Study. Retrieved from osf.io/g6bcn

[x] Recruiting (dis)advantage: Men’s versus women’s evaluations of gender-based targeted recruitment Webster, Brian D; Smith, Alexis N; Kim, Joongseo; Watkins, Marla Baskerville; Edwards, Bryan D.Sex Roles: A Journal of Research Vol. 83, Iss. 11-12,  (Dec 2020): 706-721.

[x] Reducing women’s lack of fit with leadership positions? Effects of the wording of job advertisements, Lisa Kristina Horvath &Sabine SczesnyPages 316-328 | Received 17 Sep 2013, Accepted 24 Jun 2015, Published online: 30 Jul 2015, https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2015.1067611

Kroeper, K. M., Williams, H. E., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Counterfeit diversity: How strategically misrepresenting gender diversity dampens organizations’ perceived sincerity and elevates women’s identity threat concerns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000348

(?) Marise Ph Born and Toon W Taris. 2010. The impact of the wording of employment
advertisements on students’ inclination to apply for a job. The Journal of social psychology ,
Vol. 150, 5 (2010), 485–502
? Tanja Hentschel, Susanne Braun, Claudia Verena Peus, and Dieter Frey. 2014. Wording of
advertisements influences women’s intention to apply for career opportunities. In Academy of
Management Proceedings , Vol. 2014. Academy of Management Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510,
15994.
? Lea Hodel, Magdalena Formanowicz, Sabine Sczesny, Jana Valdrová, and Lisa von
Stockhausen. 2017. Gender-fair language in job advertisements: A cross-linguistic and
cross-cultural analysis. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology , Vol. 48, 3 (2017), 384–401.

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