Objective champions & compassionate enthusiasts – Gendered wording in job ads

You might have heard that the way in which job ads are phrased might have an impact on how attractive they are to potential applicants. Some companies offered paid services on improving your ads, other tools are readily available online or you can just check out the original word list here.

And it sounds promising, right? Surely, erasing typical male words is not only an easy thing to do, it´s intuitive that this will increase your influx of female candidates. An attractive low-effort-high-impact recruitment intervention. Or is it?

In this post, I walk you through the original research and some of the media coverage done on the topic and give some tips on how to implement a more gender-balanced perspective in your job ads. I will also take a critical stand regarding if – from a bigger perspective of attracting talents and making them apply – working on your job ad wording is worth the effort. Maybe not surprisingly, my answer is “no” but I believe that in your context, it might be an interesting puzzle piece to consider.

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.

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.

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 in (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%). Overall, the effect is statistically significant but weak (not sure which statistics would make most sense to insert here, r and p results?). An unpublished more recent analysis [2] says to have found similar effects for ads from 2017.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. Effects of gendered wording might be significant but not comparable to the job postings you have in place.

What candidate attitudes did the gendered wording affect?

I have often read that studies had shown that female applicants are less likely to apply when you use gendered wording (an even more blatant example is Different studies show that gendered wording in job ads keeps women from entering male dominated fields like Tech.).

Surprisingly enough, that was not what the researchers for the original research looked at. In simplified terms, 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.

AreaEffect for female participantsEffect for male participants
Work in progress

What do I make out of these results?

Since the study is set-up as an experiment, we can conclude 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.

Experiments raise concerns about the external validity (=the extend to which you can generalise 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´s hard to answer this question because so much depends on the context you are in. Let´s start with an extreme situation: you want to increase the number of female applicants, you have a limited amount of time plus the only intervention you are planning is to write your ads gendered neutral. Based on what we just revisited, I would not waste your resources on replacing words.

Gendered wording doesn’t have an effect if only male potential applicants land on your job ad page

Insert low effort / low effect chart here

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)

Next up: What makes potential candidates apply for your jobs – What research says [create blog post, link here and have suggestions in there]


[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. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.hkr.se/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

+7 potential studies I found in my literature review

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