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Do Your Words Deter Women?

Certain phrases may keep women from applying and slow time to hire

A woman sitting at a desk with a laptop and a cup of coffee.

Use the wrong words in your job description and women may not apply, researchers have found—and even if they do apply, it will take them, and men, longer to decide to do so. 

New software like that offered by Textio and Talent Sonar, which recruiters use to remove gendered and other biased language from posts, and overall awareness of the effects of using certain words can eliminate inadvertent bias. 

As you write job ads, the software identifies your text as having either a feminine or a masculine tone. But "tone" here has less to do with writing style, Textio director of communications Marissa Coughlin says, and more to do with vocabulary—which words "are statistically likely to attract more women or men to your job post." 

Take "exhaustive," for example—a word Coughlin says results in more male applicants. Or "loves learning"—a phrase she says attracts more women. Why these words draw more candidates from one gender than the other, neither she nor co-founder and CEO Kieran Snyder can say. 

"You and I could make a theory as to why men or women are more likely to respond," Snyder said, "but the reality is, whatever the theory, it's what happens with the data." 

And the data also shows that gender-aware recruitment writing works. After switching to vocabulary Textio identified as "feminine toned," client Expedia saw an 8 percent increase in female applicants. 

Another revelation: Certain words can speed up hiring or slow it down. Textio and Expedia compiled a list of eight phrases that can alter time to hire:


Slower Words                                                Faster Words

Liaise                                                               Future

Agency                                                           Integrity

Track record                                                   Accommodate

Presentation skills                                          Provides feedback


Fortunately for recruiters, Coughlin says these words have the same impact on time to hire for both women and men.

And the data on gender differences highlights an issue academics have been aware of for a long time, says Rupert Bader, senior director of talent analytics and planning at Expedia. 

In 2010, Bader read a white paper from the National Center for Women & Information Technology parsing 20 years of linguistic HR research showing that men and women respond differently to various phrases in job descriptions. His view of recruitment changed, he said, and he tried to use the findings to improve how Microsoft—his employer at the time—hired employees. But academic research isn't always easy to implement across a corporation. Telling recruiters to avoid a list of words simply isn't realistic. And even if Bader could use the research to drive change, there was no reliable way to collect metrics proving the additional effort was worth it. 

But when Bader began working at Expedia in 2014, Textio and Talent Sonar software were hitting the market. Bader says Textio can "read the job descriptions using machine learning and natural language processing and give those job descriptions a score based on this research." Words that predominantly attract men—like "enforcement" or "fearless"—are flagged, but ones that typically draw more women are flagged, too. This, Bader says, is for balance: "It's not only about attracting more women. We have some roles where we don't get enough men applying." 

"When you write a job ad, you're making decisions about what type of person to appeal to," said Sy Islam, Ph.D., principal consultant for management firm Talent Metrics and assistant professor of psychology at Farmingdale State College. The words that ads use, he explained, "indicate that—despite qualifications—the company is looking for someone who fits these demographic criteria." 

As an example, Bader said, if your job description reads, "We have a great culture in the office. We like to have Nerf battles every Friday," common sense tells you women and older candidates might be less likely to apply. 

Of course, if you work at a toy factory, Nerf battles are OK. And whether the phrase "presentation skills" slows down hiring or not, some positions absolutely require them. So when the software flags words that are really the best way to describe a job, Bader says, Expedia recruiters use them anyway: "We're not forcing people to use words that are not their own words. We're just exposing them to information they may not have known in the past about how this word or phrase lands on people of different genders. ... They can still say, 'You know what? "Exhaustive" really describes what I need from this candidate—what I need in this job—and I'm going to continue to use that.' ... We just want them to know that, on average, they're going to have fewer women applying for the job as a result of that choice." 

In the end, any job posting—whether it is gender-aware or not—should be geared toward attracting the best possible match for an open role. Islam recommends "stay[ing] focused on describing the tasks involved in the job and projecting an accurate vision of the company culture. ... Language is about communication," so if gender diversity is important to you, use your language to "make sure that your organization is communicating a real desire for diverse job candidates." 

Terena Bell is a freelance writer in New York City.

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