What Is a Gender-Biased Job Listing?

Identifying Biased Language and How to Reduce It

Confusing businesswoman using cell phone and laptop in office
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Job seekers are routinely encouraged to research companies they would like to work with before submitting an application. However, one of the hindrances to moving forward with this, particularly for women, is that some job descriptions in listings include wording that is more male-friendly and can serve as a deterrent to female applicants.

If companies want to attract the best talent, they should start with an evaluation of their job descriptions to ensure they are gender-neutral.

What Is a Gender-Biased Job Listing?

A gender-biased job listing includes often-coded language that is geared toward a specific gender or sex. Although women have comprised a significant portion of the workforce for decades, many job descriptions still have a tendency to be predominantly male-oriented. 

Studies have shown that gender bias and stereotyping in job descriptions have created artificial barriers that have prevented companies from tapping into a highly qualified talent pool. 

That’s why it’s important for companies, from small businesses to large corporations, to make a determined effort to include balanced, non-discriminatory language in their job listings in order to prevent a workplace culture in which gender discrimination pervades. 

How to Identify Gender Bias in a Job Listing

In a study that suggests coded wording in job advertisements is prevalent and sustains gender inequality, researchers from Duke University and the University of Waterloo produced an extensive list of what they referred to as male-coded and female-coded words.

Here is a brief list of some gender-coded words that were identified:

 Masculine-Coded Words  Feminine-Coded Words
 Adventurous  Compassion
 Aggressive  Considerate
 Ambitious  Honest
 Challenge  Enthusiastic
 Champion  Empathy
 Courageous  Kind
 Fearless  Nurturing
 Independent  Sensitive
 Self-sufficient  Sympathy

How to De-bias Job Listings 

According to a recent report from recruitment ad tech firm Appcast, job ads with gender-neutral language overwhelmingly performed best in terms of apply rates and number of applications per job—further reinforcing the importance of minding your wording. 

In a video conference call with The Balance, Karen Catlin, a leadership coach, author, and speaker on inclusive workplaces at Better Allies, advised that companies should avoid biased or discriminatory language in order to be more welcoming to a wider candidate pool. 

According to Catlin, using masculine-coded words like “aggressive,” “competitive,” and “individual” can deter women from applying.

She offered the following points on how employers can improve a job description:

  • Drop “preferred” requirements, degrees, and certifications (unless truly needed).
  • Remove biased language.
  • Remove skills that can easily be taught on the job.
  • For everything else, ask, “If an otherwise perfect candidate came along without this experience, would we still hire them?”

What’s at Stake?

Companies can do themselves a disservice when they rely on outdated recruitment practices—such as masculine-worded job descriptions—to attract women and other diverse candidates. In some cases, it can prove quite costly. 

For instance, Google recently agreed to pay over $3.8 million to more than 5,500 current employees and job applicants to settle allegations of systemic compensation and hiring discrimination, Among those affected were 1,757 female and 1,219 Asian applicants for software engineering positions who were not hired.

However, while Google paid a price for its seemingly discriminatory hiring practices, other corporate giants, like Johnson & Johnson (J&J), have shown that addressing issues of gender bias head-on can actually pay off. After realizing that many of its job descriptions were skewed toward male candidates, J&J used language insights firm Textio to edit job descriptions and remove gender-coded wording and skill sets that were not required for the role. As a result, the company noticed a 9% increase in female applicants.

What Employers Should Do to Reduce Gender-Biased Job Listings

Recruiters and resume screeners often serve as the gatekeepers, and sometimes their own biases can seep into the recruitment process and hamper consideration of diverse candidates.

According to a report from Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on building workplaces that work for women, in order to create objective and unbiased job descriptions, companies need to balance masculine and feminine words to convey that they value a diverse set of skills. In addition to assessing job descriptions, Catalyst offers the following tips on how organizations can attract women and other diverse talent:

  • Audit job descriptions for masculine terms and rewrite them focusing only on objective job requirements.
  • Require that the panel for every open position include at least one qualified woman candidate.
  • Make sure recruiters are tapping into diverse slates; that the panel is representative and that the process is standardized—each candidate being asked the same set of questions to remove implicit bias.
  • Avoid informal judgements such as “the right fit,” which could lean toward candidates who reflect the recruiter’s own profile.
  • Implement a blind resume screening process to reduce the possibility of unconscious bias.
  • When interviewing candidates, ensure that they meet with an equal number of women and men whenever possible. 
  • Institute targets for diverse hiring at each level of management and hold managers accountable for reaching those targets.

Tools to Improve Job Listings

Several software tools are now available to help employers and job seekers identify and decode the wording of job listings. For example, Kat Matfield, who was inspired by the aforementioned Duke and University of Waterloo research, developed the Gender Decoder tool, while other tools like Ongig and Applied can also be used to decipher job descriptions to make them more gender-neutral.

The Bottom Line

When job listings use masculine-coded words and phrases, women and minorities are less likely to apply, even if they believe they are qualified. If companies want to attract the best talent, recruiters and HR professionals should make a concerted effort to audit job descriptions to ensure they are devoid of gender-coded language. As the studies, data, and company success stories have shown, it’s never been more necessary—or beneficial—to de-bias job listings.