The importance of gender-neutral wording in job ads

Numerous studies have shown that gender-neutral wording in job adverts outperform those that contain gendered words and yet a recent report has found that only 38% of all job ads use gender-neutral language.

Considering the same report found that the cost per application for gender-neutral job ads is 41% lower than those with coded words, this is remarkable. The fact is that gender-neutral job ads receive more applications from both men and women. That means a higher percentage of diverse applications too, something that has been proved again and again as being vital to greater business success. So why aren’t we paying more attention to it?  

According to an academic study undertaken by Duke University and the University of Waterloo, the most common male-coded words used in job ads are ‘ambitious’, ‘confident’, ‘decision’, ‘logic(al)’, and ‘superior’ whilst the most common female-coded words are ‘compassion’, ‘emotion(al)’, ‘interpersonal’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘warm’. In order to appeal to all candidates, regardless of gender, age, disability, or background, it is essential to optimise your job ad copy, which means avoiding all coded words.   

There are plenty of real-world examples that prove this is more than just theory. As revealed at a Fortune conference, when the merchant Banking division at Goldman Sachs removed ‘aggressive’ from its job ads, female applications skyrocketed. The term has become common in finance job ads for qualities such as energy and determination but it is incredibly off-putting to women. When the team removed the word from its job ads they ended up with the enviable status of having a completely equal gender balance at every level, right up to partners. 

Head of the division, Rana Yared, admitted that changing the wording also helped to change mindsets throughout the recruitment process so that the hiring team approached questioning in interviews differently. Instead of asking if a candidate was ‘aggressive’, they were asked “are you intellectually curious, are you assertive when you form a view, do you have an insatiable desire to learn, and can you articulate your view with training?” simply changing the way you ask a question can be more appealing to both men and women. A LinkedIn report on the importance of vocabulary choice in job ads backs this up. It found that the word ‘aggressive’ discourages 44% of women and 33% of men from applying for a job. 

Insurance company Zurich found that the number of women applying for senior roles in the UK rose by a fifth in 2020 after it began to focus on creating gender-neutral job ads and offer flexible working options. Zurich eliminated words such as ‘tenacious’, ‘fast-paced’ and ‘authority’ in its job ads and included words such as ‘inclusion’, ‘contributing’, ‘meaningful’ and ‘encouraged’ more frequently. In WaveTrackR’s Annual Report 2020 our data revealed that ‘diversity and ‘diversity inclusion’ were amongst the top keywords searched for by candidates. 

Telecoms network Openreach removed entire phrases from its job ads in order to tackle the lack of female candidates applying for their engineering jobs. After ridding their job ads of vocabulary such as “getting stuck in” and “getting your hands dirty” and substituting them with phrases such as “comfortable talking to people” they experienced a 200% increase in female applicants. The engineering sector has for some time campaigned to encourage more women to take up engineering-related courses at school, college and in higher education but, according to the Women’s Engineering Society fewer than one in eight of the UK’s engineers are women. Something as simple as altering the wording in a job ad could just help empower women to apply for engineering jobs from entry-level all the way up to leadership roles.

Words are powerful. The vocabulary used in job ads can mean the difference between a diverse mix of qualified candidates seeing the ad at all, let alone feeling compelled to apply. In the competition for top talent, research has proven that the wording in your job ad is vital.

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