What do the words “ninja,” “rock star,” and “badass” have in common? It turns out that these words, when listed in job descriptions, are major deterrents for women job seekers. Social science research has called attention to the role of job descriptions in perpetuating gender inequality. For example, a 2011 study entitled “Evidence That Gendered Wording Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality” assessed whether the presence of stereotypically masculine words (such as dominant and competitive) in job postings would discourage women from applying for positions. The study found that traditionally masculine wording in job announcements impacted participants’ perception of gender diversity within the job. Additionally, the study found that masculine wording in job announcements led to a reduced level of anticipated belongingness and job interest among women.
In recent years, data-driven startups like Unitive, Textio, and Paradigm have emerged to tackle the underrepresentation of women in fields like the tech industry. These companies have drawn upon social science research and used technology to analyze gender bias in job descriptions. In the process, they have identified numerous terms that can discourage women from applying for positions. According to Laura Mather, the CEO of Unitive, phrases like “the best of the best” can be interpreted as a signal that a company is only looking for white men to apply. Mather has also noted that the phrase “competitive salary” can be problematic for women, who are less likely to negotiate, as the phrase communicates that job seekers will need to negotiate their salary down the line. Going back to the term “ninja,” Mather strongly discourages using this term in job descriptions, noting that it “is a very strongly ‘bro-grammar’ type term.”
Kieran Snyder, a linguist and cognitive scientist who heads Textio, has also honed in on biased language that tends to keep women out of the application pool. She has noted that corporate buzzwords, like the word “synergy,” are suggestive of an exclusive boys’ club environment: “Everybody hates that language, but underrepresented people hate it more, probably because it’s a cultural signifier of some kind. It sort of communicates, this is an old-boys’ network kind of company.” According to Snyder, there are more than 25,0000 potentially problematic phrases that have statistically been shown to bias job announcements, either towards or against women. Among the ones that skew male are: “VIP,” “Type A,” and “sets the standard.”
To address gender equity in the hiring process, employers should take a critical look at their job announcements and review them for biased language. Fortunately, there are several tools at employers’ fingertips to do so. Unitive and Textio both offer employers software programs that screen job announcements for bias. There’s also a web-based service called Gender Decoder, which allows users to paste in their job announcements for a quick assessment of whether the announcement contains gender-coded language—with just a couple of clicks, employers can double check whether their announcement really reads “women need not apply.”