Words Matter: Gender-Coded Language in Job Ads

by Kim Robinson, SHRM-SCP

Bulletin,  Diversity and Equity,  Hiring

Employers generally recognize the importance and good business sense of a diverse workforce. Sometimes the best intentions can be derailed using language that unwittingly encourages one gender to apply over others. How can we know when this is happening, and what can we do about it?

First, let’s set the stage. In 1968, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determined job advertisements could not specify that only men or women could apply or would be considered for specific jobs. That ruling was quickly challenged in the courts, but in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that sex-segregated job ads were unconstitutional. The ruling opened the door for women to apply for higher-paying jobs that generally were restricted to male applicants.

Consider these real-life examples of newspaper classified ads from 1960:

“Woman — Mature, 40 to 55 years of age for secretarial work in x-ray department of hospital. Typing essential, shorthand not needed. 5 1/2 -day week. Write stating age, experience and salary expected.”

“RADIO MANUFACTURING CO., south city, requires intelligent young man, 21-25, as Trainee Supervisor. Applicant should have Leaving Certificate standard of education and some mechanical experience. Reply stating age, education, and previous employers to BOX PT 530.”

These are unimaginable in today’s recruiting world. Yet as employers, we may, in far more subtle ways, use words to inadvertently discourage women, men, or non-binary people from applying.

What is gender-coded language? It is words or phrases associated with a particular gender, specifically male or female, often based on stereotypes. Here are some examples of gender-coded words that often show up in job ads:

  • Male: competitive, aggressive, challenge, decisive, courage/courageous, dominate, champion, driven, fearless
  • Female: collaborative/collaborate, dependable, honest, loyal, interpersonal, enthusiastic/enthusiasm, committed, connect/connected, patient

Consider what these words have in common. They are predominantly adjectives that describe personal attributes rather than required outcomes of the job, specific experience, or other factual information.

Certainly, all genders can exhibit characteristics from either list. However, in the case of male-gendered language, using it may send a subtle message that mostly men work at the company, that other genders may not belong or be welcome there, and therefore make the job less appealing. The same may be true for male candidates considering jobs with female-gendered language. Using non-gendered language serves to encourage men, women, and non-binary people to apply, providing even greater opportunities for a diverse and inclusive workplace.

The consequences of using gender-coded language show up in the applicant pool’s diversity and, therefore, diversity of new hires. Another impact is increased costs per application and an overall negative impact on the employer’s brand. Consider the results Goldman Sachs realized when they removed the word “aggressive” from their ads. Hiring women increased dramatically, one outcome of which was ultimately a workforce of 50% women.

How can employers avoid the trap of gender-coded language? Here are a few tips and pointers:

  • Use language that clearly describes the duties and expectations of the job and the specific, required qualifications. Be factual and avoid embellishment, industry-speak, and cliches.
  • Make sure job titles accurately describe the job. Replace creative titles with words like ninja, rock star, and superhero (gender-coded male terms) with neutral, descriptive titles like project manager, systems engineer, trainer, or sales territory manager.
  • Assess the applicant pool. Are applicants predominantly one gender? If so, it may be time to carefully review the job ad to see where adjustments can be made.
  • Minimize the list of requirements and keep them job-related. Women are less likely to apply unless they meet 100% of the requirements, while men will apply if they meet roughly 80%.
  • Challenge ad writers to consider incumbents of all genders who perform the job well. If everyone in the role has historically been one gender, be intentional about choosing language that is less likely to be gender-coded.
  • Emphasize your brand using images and a well-written commitment to diversity and inclusion that accompanies the organization’s EEO statement.
  • Provide and communicate benefits offerings that include programs that support a diverse candidate pool. Consider family leave, flexible or hybrid schedules, and tuition reimbursement, or professional development programs.

The rewards for taking a focused approach to checking for gender-coded language are a deeper understanding of the organization’s culture, a careful look at what makes someone well qualified for a job, and of course, a more diverse workforce. Please contact Employers Council for more suggestions for boosting the effectiveness of your hiring programs.

About the author
Kim Robinson, SHRM-SCP

Kim Robinson is a consultant in the Human Resources Services Department where she provides members with information and perspective on HR operations, policy and current trends and topics. Kim has 20 years’ experience in Human Resources in health care, nonprofit and banking and finance. Kim has also held career coaching roles, supporting professionals at all levels in organizations in creating and achieving professional goals. Kim holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and is SHRM-SCP certified. She enjoys vegetable and xeric gardening, cooking, and reading.