To improve gender equality at work, change the language of job posts

The fight for equality.
The fight for equality.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Jasso
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Women are ambitious, competitive, and dominant. Still, research shows that go-getting ladies don’t apply for jobs that advertise those requirements. Change the language of the ads and it will attract women, says Santander UK chairwoman Shriti Vadera.

It’s fashionable to put the onus on women to lean in and be more confident, the banking chief told a crowd at the FT Women at the Top conference in London on Sept. 30. But companies need to take some responsibility, too. They should, Vadera said, re-examine job posting vocabulary because certain words “can be off-putting, like using ‘ambitious,’ ‘dominant,’ and ‘competitive.'”

There is support for this claim. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013 investigated ads for jobs in traditionally male fields, like plumbing, engineering, and programming to see if they used stereotypically male words—like “competitive,” “dominate,” and “leader”—and if those words dissuaded women from applying. Researchers compared over 4,000 job ads, then they asked women to respond to the postings. They found ”that masculine wording in job advertisements leads to less anticipated belongingness and job interest among women.” The study proposed that this phenomenon perpetuates gender inequality in male-dominated fields, maintaining the status quo.

Ladies may also shirk tough language because research shows that female communication styles are subject to much criticism. A comparison of performance reviews at tech companies in Silicon Valley by Stanford University gender researchers Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, published in the Harvard Business Review (paywall), found that the phrase “too aggressive” appeared roughly three times more often in the reviews of women than in those of men. “While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles,” the researchers wrote.

The solution to the language problems in job postings can be solved, however, Simard told Quartz in an email. It is “best addressed by seeking gender neutral words that are less associated with stereotypical attributes.” Companies like Twitter, Atlassian, Starbucks, Square, and Microsoft are working on developing job ads that bring in women candidates using a machine learning platform that analyzes job listings for meaningful language patterns.

As Justine Greening, Britain’s secretary of state for education, pointed out during her talk at the Women on Top event in London, gender equality just makes economic sense. ”No country can truly develop if it locks out half its population.”