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Gender Discrimination and Bias in Job Descriptions
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Talent Management

Are Your Job Descriptions Driving Away Talent with Unconscious Gender Bias?

Gender Discrimination in Job Descriptions

Can job descriptions be sexist? Put another way: can the words we choose to describe jobs send the wrong message to female candidates? A great deal of academic research has gone into answering these important questions. Here’s what you need to know.

Despite Progress, Women Are Still Blocked in the Workplace

Not long ago, the business world was completely male-dominated. Executive suites, corner offices, and mid-to-upper-management positions were simply out of the question for women. Those women “lucky” enough to hold professional business positions were only allowed to do so in the most basic capacity, fulfilling stereotypical roles that the “working man” had deemed appropriate.

Slowly but surely, measures came into place allowing women to break free from the socially constructed obstacles that had been impeding their upward mobility. With the 19th Amendment, the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and many more, women were finally given a seat at the table. As they worked their way up through the organizational ranks it became impossible for business leaders to ignore a glaring fact- women were just as valuable, and in many cases, even more valuable than their male counterparts. In fact, public companies in the top quartile for female executives have a return on assets (74 percent higher) on average.

Thanks to these efforts, long strides have been made toward gender equality in the workplace. However, there is still a long way to go. Consider the following statistics uncovered by Mckinsey & Company:

  • In the US, women comprise only 16% of executive teams.
  • 97% of US companies have executive teams that fail to meet gender demographics of the labor force and population.

Recruiting Plays a Major Role in Gender Equality

Recruiters and other hiring professionals are the driving force behind gender equality. Of course, priority #1 is (selecting the best candidate) for the job but what if I told you that you may be unconsciously driving away the best candidates before they even applied? This may in fact be the case with unconscious gender bias in your job descriptions.

Study Uncovers Gender Discrimination in Job Descriptions

As part of a comprehensive research project on this issue, professors from the University of Waterloo and Duke conducted several studies examining how male gendered words in job descriptions impact the willingness of females to apply.

Although we initially wrote off the validity of gender discrimination in job descriptions, the findings of (the report) paint a startling picture of how masculine gendered wording can perpetuate gender inequality and division in the workplace.

gender bias in job descriptions

The Study

For the study, 96 subjects were presented 6 job descriptions:

  • 2 were from male-dominated roles (engineer and plumber)
  • 2 were from female-dominated roles (registered nurse and administrative assistant)
  • 2 were from gender neutral roles (real estate agent and retail sales manager)

For each job description, two copies were made. The copies were practically identical, except for one copy contained masculine wording and one contained feminine wording (see image below).


In the study, half of the participants were shown masculine worded job descriptions for plumber, retail sales manager, and registered nurse (job descriptions for engineer, administrative assistant, and real estate agent were also shown to this half but with feminine wording). For the other half of participants, the gendered wording of the job descriptions was flipped (so the subjects were displayed masculinely worded job descriptions for engineer, real estate agent, and administrative assistant and the other three descriptions were femininely worded). To eliminate any outside influence, the job description presentation order was randomized.

gender bias language in job listings

The Findings

The study revealed that masculine worded job descriptions significantly deterred women from applying to those jobs regardless of whether the job was stereotypically male, female, or gender neutral. For example, even in the case of the nurse position, when the job description contained male gendered words, subjects perceived the role to be for a male candidate. Why? Subjects (both men and women) perceived men fulfilling the roles in job descriptions that contained male gendered wording. Masculine worded descriptions subliminally told women that they were not the right fit for the role and should not apply, regardless of qualifications.

Gendered Job Descriptions Alters Perception, Which Lowers Job Appeal, Sense of Belongingness, and Likelihood to Apply

You know the saying, “perception is reality?” This is highly applicable in the case of this study. Women did not perceive themselves filling roles in masculine gendered job descriptions and therefore were far less likely to apply. If there was masculine wording in a job description, female participants gave those jobs a significantly lower job appeal rating. Furthermore, their sense of belongingness to those roles was drastically reduced. These factors only compound upon the well-documented effects of the (confidence gap), which holds that women suffer from a significant gap in confidence when compared to men in the workplace. Studies have found that on average, women only apply to a job if they meet 100% of the qualifications, whereas men will apply if they meet 60% of the qualifications. Add into this equation the fact that job descriptions may be signaling to women that hey are not right for the role and this only serves as a further deterrent to applying.

Beyond just the individual role, male gendered job descriptions can serve as a signifier of the overall company culture. Job descriptions often form a candidate’s first impression about your company, and when your job description has a male bias, this can signify that your workplace does as well.

Gendered Wording Only Impacts Women, Has No Effect on Men

The second startling finding from the study is that gendered wording only seems to have a negative impact on females. When a job description with female wording was shown to a male subject, this seemed to have no impact on their sense of belonging in the role or the general appeal of the job. Males were just as likely to apply for female-coded jobs as females were. From this, it can be deduced that gendered wording in job descriptions only acts as a deterrent for females.

Gender Discrimination Most Prevalent in Male-Dominated Jobs

Another interesting finding from the study was that masculine words were more likely to emerge within advertisements for male-dominated jobs than female words were for female-dominated jobs. The more male-dominated a role was, the more prevalent gendered discrimination was in the wording for the job description.

Gender Discrimination Is Completely Unconscious

Finally, in the most startling finding from this study, it was uncovered that not a single subject realized the presence of gendered language. “Participants were asked which factors had affected their perceptions of the advertisements and not one participant mentioned wording.” This makes it clear that gender discrimination in job descriptions, although incredibly powerful, is completely unconscious. For this reason, hiring professionals must be vigilant in ensuring that we are not using gendered words in our job descriptions if we want the best candidate for the job, not just the best gender.

Steps to Eliminate Gender Discrimination in Job Descriptions

Gender equality isn’t just some lofty goal to aspire to, it has a real impact on your bottom line. Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY found that (companies with at least 30% female leaders had net profit margins up to 6% points higher than companies with no women in the top ranks). But if gendered wording is unconscious, how can you make sure that your job descriptions are equally appealing to male and female candidates?

  1. Educate Your Team About Unconscious Gender Discrimination in Job Descriptions
    Recognizing that unconscious gender bias exists is the first step to solving it. Take this information to your hiring team so that they can identify and eliminate unconscious gender discrimination in your organization’s job descriptions.
  2. Use a Gender Diverse Panel to Audit Job Descriptions
    Once you have a job description written up, read back through it to see if you can identify overemphasis of masculine or feminine words. Look good to you? Have a gender diverse panel review the job description to get their feelings as well.
  3. Utilize Available Technology
    There are several tools readily available that you can utilize to tackle the issue of gender discrimination in job descriptions. The (Gender Decoder for Job Ads) is a free, ready-to-use tool that allows you to check for linguistic gender-coding. Simply paste your job description into the tool and it will identify all of your gender-coded words, as well as let you know if your job is masculine-coded or feminine-coded.

Textio is another tool (although not free) that helps to identify gender discrimination. It uses machine learning to help you optimize your job descriptions for attracting the best candidate pool. Textio boasts a comprehensive tone meter that indicates whether your job is more masculine or feminine-coded. Based on your results, Textio gives you real-time advice for how you can attract more diverse applicants to your job description.

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