Gendered language and the recruitment process – a lesson for business schools

Central LancashireWomen’s underrepresentation in leadership positions is a widespread phenomenon and attributed to a number of factors. Business schools are no exception to this challenge and are being encouraged to ensure greater diversity in their leadership roles, particularly through initiatives such as Athena Swan. One area worth consideration, for any organisation, is how the use of language and linguistic forms, especially in the advertisement of vacancies and roles, can shape perceptions about the suitability of men or women for a particular job. Without realising it, we all use language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’. Society has certain expectations of what men and women are like, and how they differ, and this seeps into the language we use. Gendered wording i.e. masculine and feminine themed words, such as those associated with gender stereotypes (think about “bossy” and “feisty”: we almost never use these words to describe men) employed in job recruitment and promotion materials can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations.  Research has shown that such gendered wording will deter certain applications from applying, for example, women will be put off from applying for jobs that are advertised with masculine-coded language (Gaucher et al, 2011; Horvath and Sczesny, 2016).

Gaucher et al (2011) found that job descriptions for male-dominated jobs contained more masculine-themed words associated with male stereotypes than job descriptions from female-dominated jobs and vice versa. They also identified a number of masculine themed words that deterred female applicants from applying for jobs, which included words such as active, ambitious, analytical, competitive, dominate, challenging, confident, decisive, determined, independent, leader, and objective.  Meanwhile, feminine themed language included words such as committed, connected, cooperative, dependable, interpersonal, loyal, responsible, supportive, and trust.

So what can business schools learn from this? Perhaps unsurprisingly, women job seekers are more interested in roles when advertisements are unbiased, making reference to both men and women as candidates. In other words, women and men, for example, may equally like and desire a management role, but highly masculine wording used in the job posting reduces women’s appeal of the job because it signals that women do not fit or belong in that job. In this way, qualified male and female applicants are opting out of jobs that they could perform well.  What may seem to be a very subtle changing of words actually has a significant impact.  For example, when job adverts focus on enthusiasm and innovation, instead of aggressiveness and competitiveness, the number of applications from women can rise by 40% (Desvaux et al, 2008).

So how can you ensure that your job adverts contain gender-inclusive words that encourage both women and men to apply?  Asking the following questions when developing your recruitment and selections tools, right from the job description and person specification through to KPIs for the role and the job advert itself, is a good starting point:

  • Does the job description lack feminine-gender words that might deter female applicants?
  • Could the lack of gender-inclusive wording in your job description influence women to opt out and not apply?
  • Are there gender bias characteristics in your job advertisement?
  • Could the lack of gender-inclusive words actually be perpetuating gender inequality in your organization?

Hence, careful consideration of the language used at each stage of the recruitment process would be a significant step towards addressing female underrepresentation in leadership positions.

Dr Samantha Evans, Kent Business School, University of Kent