How to Use Gender-Neutral Language to Reduce Bias & Boost Diversity4 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
In some countries, job advertisements are not allowed to target specifically men or women or use pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘she’. The discussion around gender-neutral language is not new but the unspoken use of inclusive language in job postings is still a hot topic for recruiters and companies who support gender equality.
In a time when pro-diversity movements become prominent and gender inequality is recognized not only as a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge, job postings are still loaded with gender-coded words. Companies can promote social change and contribute to achieving gender equality in many ways. One of them is by using gender-fair and inclusive language in their job postings, helping to reduce gender stereotyping and increasing diversity across the board.
To support recruiters and hiring managers on using gender-neutral language in job postings, we’ve compiled some guidelines and recommendations that remove bias and promote a non-sexist use of language.
To understand the severity of the issue, let’s start with some figures. A 2017 study by Totaljobs analysed more than 75 thousand job posts over a six week period to assess the frequency of gender-coded words in UK recruitment. They found a staggering 478,175 words carrying gender bias. This is an average of 6 male-coded or female-coded words per job post.
By inadvertently limiting recruitment efforts to one demographic, recruiters risk reducing their talent pool (by half in serious cases), slowing down the hiring process and as a consequence, increasing the costs of recruitment.
On the other hand, gender-neutral language can provide a wide variety of benefits for businesses. McKinsey has been examining diversity in the workplace for several years and found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Sexist Language and Unconscious Bias
To understand why sexist language can be so detrimental to the recruitment efforts of a company, it is important to discuss the effects of unconscious bias. As pointed by Collier & Zhang (2016), “without examining potential unconscious biases, job postings can include language that might deter a certain pool of candidates from applying, thus reducing the diversity of candidates”. Using Textio, a content analysis service that aims to promote gender-neutral language, the authors found a selection of gender-skewed wordings prominent in job listings.
Masculine Skewed Wordings
Ambition, driven, lead, persist, principle, decision, superior, individual, assertive, strong, active, hierarchical, rigid, Silicon Valley, stock options, strong, takes risk, workforce, autonomous, ping pong/pool table, must, competitive.
Feminine Skewed Wordings
Thoughtful, creative, adaptable, choose, collaborate, curious, excellent, flexible, multitasking, health, imaginative, intuitive, leans in, plans for the future, resilient, self-aware, socially responsible, trustworthy, up-to-date, wellness program, nurture, teach, dependable, community, serving, understand, loyal, enthusiasm, trust, support, interpersonal, connect, commit.
Comparing the two sets of wordings, the masculine skewed wordings have an underlying power-driven stigma, while the feminine skewed wordings are more emotive. Experts also point out that women tend to use a more communal and interpersonal style of speech, as well as more social and emotional language.
Guidelines for Gender-Neutral Job Postings
Check Your Pronouns
Avoid using gender-coded pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’
‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’, ‘theirs’ or even ‘the candidate’ are examples of more neutral pronouns
Superlatives such as ‘greatest’, ‘fastest’, ‘most capable’ can turn off female candidates who are more collaborative than competitive in nature
Research shows that women are unlikely to apply for a position unless they meet 100 per cent of the requirements. To overcome this, it is recommended to identify which requirements are “nice to have” versus “must have”
Requiring a specific degree might also alienate applicants of one gender or the other since the choice of college major can vary by gender
Use Gender-Neutral Titles in Job Descriptions
Avoid the ‘man’ suffix for job titles. Alternative suffixes include ‘person’ and ‘member’. For example businessman to businessperson/congressman to member of congress/policeman to police officer/salesman to salesperson
Assess your Job Post with Online Tools
Tools like Kat Matfield’s Gender Decoder can give you an instant overview of your job post allowing you to help free your text of hidden bias in the form of gendered words
Gender-neutral language is more than a matter of social correctness. Language powerfully reflects and influences attitudes, behaviour and perceptions related to a company and its culture and values. Recruitment efficiency thrives when organizations make a conscious effort to treat all genders equally. According to data from the hiring platform ZipRecruiter, neutral wording in job listings resulted in 42 per cent more applicants than listings that contained gendered words.
We have come a long way in regards to gender equality but we are still far from living in a gender-equal society. To achieve this ultimate goal, each small step is relevant and recruiters can advocate for increased diversity by implementing gender-neutral language throughout the recruitment process starting with their job posts.