The XX Factor

Use Gendered Words in Job Descriptions? Expect Way Fewer Applicants.

“We’re looking for a foosball-playing ninja with a competitive advantage.”


Whether or not words like aggressive and support conjure explicitly gendered images in a job applicant’s mind, studies have shown that women are turned off by job descriptions that skew toward masculine stereotypes. New research from ZipRecruiter, a job listings site, indicates that using traditionally gendered words in job postings can cost employers a wide swath of potential applicants who feel unqualified for the gig or uninspired by the description.

A study of ZipRecruiter’s “millions of job ads” found that postings containing only gender-neutral words get an average of 42 percent more responses than those that include words associated with masculine or feminine qualities. Researchers scanned for words like understand, affectionate, and nurture on the feminine side, and terms like leader, ambitious, and competitive on the masculine.

Far more listings had gendered terms than not. In posts for jobs in the business, finance, insurance, science, engineering, and tech sectors, more than 90 percent of ads contained words that have been found to elicit more positive responses in one gender than the other. The state with the lowest percentage of gendered job postings was Nevada, still at a full 80 percent. (South Dakota, the most male-biased state, topped the ranking at 95 percent gendered.) Of the ads ZipRecruiter scanned, 70 percent contained masculine words that turn women off.

Gender bias in job advertisements is (or should be) mostly a concern for male-dominated fields that shut women out in other ways—harassment, wage disparities, poor family leave policies—once they do make it in the door. Studies have shown that men aren’t turned off by jobs with feminine words in the same way that women are discouraged by masculine ones—in part, perhaps, because men tend to apply for jobs when they have at least 60 percent of the listed qualifications, while women only apply for those for which they’re 100 percent qualified.

ZipRecruiter has some suggestions for replacement phrases employers can use: “Looking for exceptional” instead of the masculine-leaning “Looking for strong…” and “a team focused on” instead of the feminine “a community of concerned,” for instance. Work-culture terminology like ninja, rockstar, and even foosball can also telegraph a female-unfriendly, brogrammer-esque vibe that keeps exceptional female candidates away.

Services like Textio, which recently found that Donald Trump spoke in more feminine language than any other candidate in the presidential primary race except Hillary Clinton, and Unitive have marketed themselves as tools employers can use to scrub their postings of unintentionally biased language that may be contributing to a heavily male workplace. Since more people in the applicant pool and the general public are starting to take note of companies’ diversity stats, employers would be wise to educate their human resources managers on taking this first step toward greater gender balance. Of course, finding more and better job candidates would be the real benefit here—but the PR boost would be a welcome side effect.