Bias In Job Descriptions: Your First Step to Creating a More Diverse Workforce

| Ameya Deshmukh
Bias & Diversity | 11 min read
Diverse group of people

It’s no secret that women and other minorities face unique challenges in the workforce. Despite the fact that women make up approximately 47% of today’s workforce, there are still many male-dominated industries. The United States Department of Labor estimates that although 74% of human resources managers are female, only 27% of CEOs are. That number drops to just 7% for construction managers. So, what’s behind these workforce dynamics? One contributing factor is unconscious gender bias in job descriptions.

gender disparity in the workplace example

The Types of Bias in Job Descriptions

Research has shown that there are two types of bias in job descriptions: Explicit bias and implicit bias. Explicit biases are ones that we can control and are aware of. Racism is one example of explicit bias. Implicit biases, on the other hand, are our unconscious perceptions, stereotypes, and beliefs we have developed from our past experiences and influences. This type of reference is often more subtle than explicit bias, more difficult to identify, and also called “unconscious bias.”

definition of explicit bias definition of implicit bias

Explicit bias for men or women in job advertisements is no longer commonplace or legal due to affirmative action and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations. But, that doesn’t mean biased advertisements don’t still exist. The gender of the ideal candidate is still conveyed, but more subtly, through implicit biases that influence wording in gendered job descriptions. These reflect broader cultural stereotypes about men and women.

This biased wording in job descriptions has been proven to still exist to this day. It changes candidates’ perceptions about the diversity of the workplace. This subsequently causes diverse candidates to avoid applying for the position. This is a loss for talent acquisition teams working to support diversity initiatives and a loss for companies as well since diverse teams are positively correlated with better financial performance.

Biased language in job descriptions discourages diverse candidates from applying, extends your time to hire, and causes your company to miss out on the benefits a diverse workforce brings. Diversity has been proven to drive innovation which can help you capture a greater share of the market. Diversity also can improve the retention and engagement of your current team. Removing gender bias in job descriptions will allow you to experience all the benefits diversity can bring.

The Cultural Roots of Gender Bias

Much of our gender bias as a society is culturally ingrained. Many of these unconscious biases can be attributed to either Eagly’s Social Role Theory or Sidanius and Prattos’ Social Dominance Theory. Both of these theories posit that gender bias is influenced by social roles, however, they differ in terms of how those roles work to form our bias.

Eagly’s Social Role Theory suggests that these biases are formed from the roles each gender traditionally takes on and the behaviors they display. We unconsciously create predictions about the traits someone has based on their gender which leads us to form deeply-rooted gender stereotypes. Men are traditionally seen as a provider with traits like strength and leadership while women are seen as caregivers and are often thought to have traits like nurturing and warmness.

examples of gender bias in perception of male traits and female traits

In a time when we’re looking to create more gender equality in jobs, these perspectives lead us to assign labels to occupations like “masculine jobs.”

Sidanius and Prattos’ Social Dominance Theory, on the other hand, posits that gendered language in job descriptions is a subtle, covert, institutionalized practice. This theory suggests that we form groups based on our roles and seek to maintain the group’s stability. It is often seen as a form of discrimination that serves to keep the dominant group in power and strengthen the gender gap.

Real-life examples of gender discrimination are caused by a mixture of Social Role and Social Dominance 

the origins of gender bias

Regardless of how gender bias is formed, it often results in the use of gendered language in descriptions.

Research on Gender Bias In Job Descriptions

In their research paper “Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality”, Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C Kay conducted a series of studies on gendered language in job advertisements/descriptions. These studies demonstrated that gender-biased language in job descriptions still exists.

The researchers explained that “given that men are associated with agency, if there are many men in a particular field, then traits associated with men (i.e., agency) should emerge within the wording of the advertisement.” They concluded that this biased wording influences certain perceptions and causes women to opt-out of applying for a position.

The Existence of Biased Language in Job Descriptions

Gaucher, Friesen, and Kays’ first study compared the different uses of gendered language in job advertisements for both male-dominated and female-dominated fields. They found that “job advertisements within male-dominated areas contained greater masculine wording than advertisements from female-dominated areas”. They hypothesized that the presence of more men in a field could be a strong predictor for masculine gendered language in job descriptions. This hypothesis was confirmed in their second study.

The Effect of Biased Language on Perception of Workplace Gender Discrimination

Their third study explored how gendered language on job advertisements affects diversity perception. In this study, participants were asked to read job descriptions for various occupations that had been altered to include either masculine or feminine language and estimate the number of women in the position being advertised.

They demonstrated that wording differences may not be entirely innocuous: Masculine wording led people to predict that there are relatively more men within the relevant occupation. Gendered wording creates perceptions about the makeup of the workforce at the workplace. But how does this affect applications?

Do candidates make subconscious assessments on the possibility of job discrimination based on job descriptions?

To answer this question – let’s examine the researchers’ final study on whether the perception of a male-dominated workforce dissuades non-male candidates from applying.

Can a gendered job posting deter female applicants?

The Consequences of a Perception of Prejudice & Bias

The results of Gaucher, Friesen, and Kay’s first three studies led to their final study. For this, they investigated another more impactful consequence of gendered job description wording: Whether gendered job description wording successfully maintains gender inequality by affecting job appeal.

Participants for this study were asked to read six job descriptions for occupations that had been altered to include either masculine or feminine language. They were then asked to complete six questions assessing 2 areas:

  • Job appeal
  • Belongingness

The results from this study demonstrated that gendered language and perception of gender-diversity (or lack thereof) significantly decreases feelings of both belongingness and job appeal in females. The same findings were not true for male participants. More feminine language did not strongly correlate with decreased feelings of belongingness or job appeal.

Overall, Gaucher, Friesen, and Kay determined that “masculine wording reflected in real job advertisements primarily serves to keep women out of the areas that men typically occupy.”

Examples of Gender Bias In Job Descriptions

Gender bias is one of the most frequent types of bias that are reflected in job descriptions today. Here are some real-life examples of biased job advertisements from reputable companies.

Bias in Traditional Job titles

Job titles are one of the most important areas of your job description. They help form candidates’ first impressions of the job and can affect whether or not they will apply. In the example below, the employer uses a gendered-term in the title.

Making small changes to standard language in job titles will make your job advertisements more inclusive. Even job titles can cause bias in job descriptions.

Trades like electrical and plumbing are notorious for being male-dominated industries. More and more licensing and certification agencies have shifted to more gender-neutral language and now use “Journeyperson” instead of “Journeyman.” Employers would be wise to follow suit. Gender-biased job titles like this one can decrease the number of female candidates that apply for your position.

Unconscious Bias in Everyday Words

Gender bias can also emerge in job descriptions in the form of everyday language that we use. “Guys” is one example. It’s a word we frequently use in our conversations, but when it’s used in a job description, it reflects unconscious gender bias.

In the example below, it’s in the company name itself so it’s difficult to avoid. Unfortunately, the bias is further strengthened by references to “brothers” joining the company which seems to imply that a female wouldn’t be welcomed into the brotherhood.

This ad has multiple examples of bias in job descriptions that could make a non-male candidate feel uncomfortable with applying.

Other Types of Bias That Emerge in Job Descriptions

Gender bias is the bias that has been the most thoroughly studied, however, it is not the only type of bias that exists in job descriptions. Many other biases are reflected in job descriptions. Since the cause and effect relationship of gender bias has been well established in the literature, we can extrapolate the findings to other forms of bias as well.

These subtle biases often surface in job descriptions and can negatively impact your hiring efforts. Here are some other forms of bias to look out for in your job descriptions.

Racial Bias

Although seemingly harmless and often difficult to spot, cultural reference can be a form of racial bias if other ethnicities are not likely to identify with it. Depending on the reference, some candidates may even have a negative perspective of it. It’s best to avoid these types of references in your job descriptions.

Negative concepts

For many years, terminology like “Master/Slave” was very common language to use in database-related job descriptions. Today, this is no longer the case, but there are some companies that still use this type of language. Companies need to be careful about using any type of language that has negative connotations.

How Diversity Panels can Fix Bias in Job Descriptions and Hiring Bias

One way to keep unconscious biases out of your job descriptions is to involve more women and underrepresented minorities in the process. Consider creating a diversity committee made up of both women and men from different backgrounds and ethnicities to review the job descriptions as part of your internal approval process.

the impact of diversity panels on reducing unconscious gender bias and other unconscious bias in hiring

How Intel Improved Diversity by 15% with Diversity Panels

Intel is an example of a company that has proven the effectiveness of these anti-bias panels and saw diversity rates climb dramatically. Years ago, Intel made a commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. As part of this initiative, they begin requiring that interview panels consist of at least two women and/or underrepresented minorities. When the hiring panels were first introduced in 2014, only 31.9% of employees were women or people of color.

Some hiring managers were a little concerned about the extended time required, but they were quickly on board once they realized how high-quality the new hires were. By 2016, 45.1% of employees were women or people of color, nearly a 15% increase in just two years.

“Implementing diverse hiring panels has enabled us to cast a wider net at the outset of the hiring process and systematically helped reduce unconscious bias in our hiring,” says Danielle Brown, Intel’s vice president of human resources and group chief human resources officer. “Unless we bring a diverse set of perspectives to solve the most difficult technical problems, we are not going to reach our full potential as a company.”

Diversity panels work because they remove biases and help the applicant form a sense of belonging and give the interview panel a fresh perspective.

Karenga Ross, an employee who was hired using this system stated “It’s nice to be able to look across that table and see someone whom I can aspire to be. I can see someone who looks like me. It was refreshing. It was inspiring.”

Cisco experienced similar benefits when they introduced similar diversity panels that same year. The chances that an underrepresented minority would be hired rose dramatically in just a short period of time. For African Americans, this rose by 70% and for Latinos, by 50%.

As these companies have shown us, diversity panels throughout the hiring process can produce astonishing results. If talent acquisition forms and asks these diversity panels to introduce their thoughts and concepts earlier in the hiring process, like in the job description and in recruitment marketing content, the impacts can be even greater.

Tools to prevent Bias in Job Descriptions

In addition to creating a diversity committee, recruiting technology can also help you keep your job descriptions bias-free. There are two tools that are particularly helpful: Textio and Gender Decoder.

Textio

Put your current job descriptions to the test. Textio is a bias checker that runs on an augmented writing platform. They help companies use less biased language in their writing. You can upload your job description and receive a score with suggestions on how to improve your writing.

Gender Decoder

Gender Decoder is a free word decoder tool you can use to see if you are using gendered-language in your job descriptions. Just copy and paste your description into the website and click “check this ad.” Gender Decoder will search through your description and identify both feminine and masculine words used.

Making Your Job Descriptions Bias-Free

As automation, technology, and the use of AI continue to rise in talent acquisition, it’s important that we become more intentional about the way we approach diversity hiring. Technology can be an incredible force for change, but it’s on us as an industry to make sure it’s a force for good.

It’s important to be aware of the type of language you are using in your job descriptions so you can attract more diverse candidates, especially for male-dominated fields. Involving a mix of genders and ethnicities in your hiring process in the form of a diversity committee and getting their input on talent acquisition strategy will help you attract high-quality candidates and create a more inclusive environment.

Take a minute to consider your own workforce dynamics. Women makeup 47% of the workforce today but are often unrepresented in many industries. How diverse is your workforce?

If you want to make your company more diverse and inclusive, it’s a good idea to start with bias in your job descriptions.

Take a look at a few of your recent descriptions.

How does your use of masculine-wording compare to feminine-wording?

Do your descriptions reflect gender bias or any other implicit biases?

What can you do to make your job descriptions and hiring process more inclusive?

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