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Altering gendered language in job postings doesn’t help attract more women


Would a job description that includes words like “committed,” “flexible,” and “compassionate” appeal to you? What about a role seeking applicants who are “determined,” “aggressive,” and “decisive”?

Earlier research encouraged the removal of gendered words like “committed” (feminine) or “determined” (masculine) in favor of neutral words in online job descriptions, a practice designed to attract a more gender-diverse pool of job applicants. Some commercial software companies claim to meet that perceived need with programs that analyze text and flag and replace stereotypically gendered words with more neutral ones.

But a new study from MIT Sloan professor and Michigan State’s Hye Jin Rho warns against relying too much on this approach.

“Our findings reveal that both the language used when posting jobs and the gender of the recruiters have no effects that matter in practice on how women and men behave during recruitment,” Castilla and Rho write. “We caution that the practice of simply altering the language of job descriptions may not necessarily help organizations address diversity issues.”

Here’s a closer look at the findings of the paper, “The Gendering of Job Postings in the Online Recruitment Process,” and what firms can do to actually diversify their pool of applicants.

Gendered language and recruiter gendering

Online postings are important because they are often the first impression a candidate gets of a job and a company. While the federal government prevents employers from specifying a preferred gender in their job postings, previous studies have shown that job ads —  intentionally or not — can end up including words that are commonly linked to masculine or feminine language, which in turn “may affect gender sorting into jobs,” according to Castilla’s new paper.

Recruiters are also on the front line of a company’s hiring team and are often the first to communicate with a job seeker. They might make their gender known through a picture, name, or listed pronouns on a professional social platform like LinkedIn. Some of that information could also appear on the job posting itself and be part of the initial impression for a job seeker. Given that studies show that people prefer to interact and communicate with others who share similar demographics, Castilla and Rho hypothesized that women would be more attracted to a job if the recruiter were female.

To measure the efficacy of gendered language and recruiter gendering, Castilla and Rho conducted two studies.

The first study included data on 487,000 job seekers and from 296,000 U.S. job postings over a two-year period. The researchers used a program that analyzes common patterns for first names to code the gender identities of the job seekers. Castilla and Rho also used natural language processing to count the frequency of stereotypically feminine and masculine words in the ads, based on terms used in previous studies.

Using this approach, highly feminine words in the job ads included “helpful” and “flexible,” and highly masculine words included “strong” and “aggressive,” according to the paper. Castilla and Rho then calculated the “femininity score” for each job ad and recruiter profile (recruiter gender was determined by self-identifiers). The higher the score, the greater the number of feminine words included in the ads and profiles.

Castilla and Rho found that, on average, a 0.005 (one standard deviation) increase in the femininity score of a given job description was associated with a 0.3% increase in the probability of a woman inquiring about the job compared with a man — a “very small effect size,” according to the paper. Additionally, from this data set, the researchers learned that the probability of a job inquiry “barely increases” for women compared with men when the job is posted by a female recruiter.

The second study involved a two-stage field experiment with 2,500 job seekers. After participants completed an online survey that included questions on demographics, they were offered the option to click on a link and learn more about a part-time job as a research project assistant. About 1,500 participants clicked the link. These individuals were then randomly assigned to one of three gendered descriptions for the same job posting (feminine, masculine, or neutral) and one of three gendered conditions for a recruiter (female, male, or no gender indicated).

The feminine posting included words like “supportive,” “interpersonal,” and “sensitive.” The masculine posting included words like “assertive,” “analytical,” and “outspoken.” The neutral posting didn’t include any of these words or other terms considered highly feminine or masculine. To change the gender of the recruiter, the researchers used the name “John” or “Jennifer” or, in the case of the neutral gender group, did not disclose a recruiter name.

While the researchers found that women overall tended to show higher interest in the job than men did, there were no statistically significant connections between the gendered words, the gender of the recruiter, and a woman’s probability of applying for the job.

“In practice, employers’ efforts to simply tweak the language of recruitment messages do not matter much for gender equality and diversity,” the authors write.

A systematic approach to better gender diversity

If gendered words fail to attract a more gender-diverse roster of applicants, how should organizations go about actually making a difference?

A lack of gender diversity in job applicants might be due to factors like the gender-typing of occupations or a perception of a particular firm’s culture as more masculine, Castilla explained.

Be aware of the information that’s already out there about your organization or about the open job, Castilla advised. There are plenty of websites, like Glassdoor or even Facebook, where current and former employees share their opinions about everything from the hiring process to the work environment.

“All of this information out there is also shaping the search behavior of job seekers, potentially discouraging or encouraging certain groups of candidates to apply or not to apply to work in your organization,” Castilla said.

If the perception of an organization is favorable but the gender diversity of applicants is still imbalanced, recruiters and hiring managers might consider trying to identify untapped talent pipelines, such as women’s colleges or professional women’s groups or associations.

Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin studies organizations and inequality and conducts research on corporate diversity programs. He said that his analyses have found that any kind of recruitment that targets women has a huge effect on not just who comes through the door but also the numbers of women in management five or 10 years later.

Another strategy is to introduce employee referral programs at all levels of an organization.

“What that means is low-level workers — more of them are women than men in every company I know of — have a chance to refer their friends and family members,” Dobbin said.

Organizations don’t need to take a “boil the ocean” approach to diversifying their workforces, said Patricia Hargil, SM ’98, vice president of transformation and the diversity and inclusion officer at Messer Americas, a branch of industrial gas company Messer. “There are definitely practical things that you can do.”

According to Hargil, Messer America’s diversity and inclusion program is built on three pillars:

  • EducationDeployment of training across the entire organization to inform, build awareness, and identify barriers to success.
  • EngagementActions that recognize, celebrate, and enhance a diverse and inclusive workforce. Employees can provide feedback on recruitment and retainment policies using a range of direct and anonymized channels.
  • ProcessReviewing and improving current processes to enable a diverse and inclusive work environment.

One example of the process pillar is a dashboard that highlights any bias related to age, ethnicity, or gender that needs to be interrupted in Messer America’s recruitment process.

“This provides us visibility through the entire recruitment process,” Hargil said.

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216