• Kate Neilson

The problem with the argument about gendered language in job ads

If you say you’re looking to hire a content “ninja” or mention that your company has a ping-pong table in your job ad, some think you might as well be saying “women need not apply”. Has the gendered language argument gone too far?

With conversations around diversity of talent taking centre stage, some employers are walking on eggshells in an effort to do the right thing. These anxieties could be amplified by the fact that some researchers have segregated words used in job ads into two categories: “masculine” and “feminine”, suggesting that recruiters could be exhibiting sexist behaviour before they’ve even met a potential candidate.

Putting aside the assumption that we all identify with our birth assigned gender, I wonder if these types of studies are truly an effective use of researchers’ time?

I feel it’s important to clarify that I’m an ardent supporter of female diversity in the workplace. For one, I am female and am writing this article from, you guessed it, a workplace. So the discussions around helping women to carve out their space in the workforce is of particular interest to me.

I want to see more conversations around the strategies for attracting and retaining diverse female talent. I want to hear expert’s thoughts on practical steps employers can take to engage Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities and culturally diverse talent. But when I hear them speaking about why a woman is supposedly threatened by the word “analyst”, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Now, I’m no behavioural psychologist – this much is obvious – but I’d suggest the only female that would be discouraged from applying for a job as a business analyst is one that has formally trained as a dentist.

When I started writing this article – which was originally going to discuss the employee experience of gendered language in job ads – I started realising that I didn’t really agree with what I was typing. Do I think women face barriers in the workplace? Absolutely. But I just don’t think this is one of them.

I can be a ninja too, you know!

Job descriptions can unintentionally use stereotypical gender biases that repel female applicants, according to research from Cornell University.

“Women tend to use a communal and interpersonal style of speech as compared to men, as well as more social and emotional language,” say researchers Danielle Collier and Charlotte Zhang.

According to their research, using “masculine-themed” words such as “competitive advantage” or “ninja” wordsmith may subconsciously cause women to look elsewhere. This is particularly true, they say, for male dominated areas like the technology sector and financial services.

"I’d suggest the only female that would be discouraged from applying for a job as a business analyst is one that has formally trained as a dentist."

Other phrases that apparently deter women from applying for certain roles include “best of the best” and “competitive salary”. The latter, according to Zhang and Collier, may give the impression that there is no room for pay negotiation and when using the word “best” you could exclude some talent – notoriously female – who might not believe that they are in fact “the best”.

By that token, do we then assume that women are more comfortable performing at a mediocre level for a non-competitive salary? I don’t think so.

Decoding our language

Go to a job search website and copy the text of one of the first ads you find. Then, paste it into the Gender Decoder, a website used to show if a job ad contains more feminine or masculine words. I just did, for a position very similar to my own. It came back as a “feminine coded job” – phew! I’ve obviously made the right career choice.

The results:

Collier and Zhang provide an example of both a masculine and feminine skewed job description:

Masculine: We are a dominant engineering firm that boasts many leading clients. We are determined to stand apart from the competition.

Feminine: We are a community of engineers who have effective relationships with many satisfied clients. We are committed to understanding the engineer sector intimately.

Even though the data suggests that as a woman I would be more inclined towards the latter, I have to disagree with the experts because I too can be determined to stand apart from competition.

Also, if we’re going to waste time decoding language, why not focus on the fact that “relationships” “satisfied” and “intimately” all hold sexual connotations? That feels like a bigger issue to me.

I understand this isn’t the message the researchers are trying to convey. They’re trying to uncover yet another hurdle that women have to jump over in order to cross the finish line; I give them credit for that. But I can’t help but see the flip side. By steering clear of the “dominate male language” mentioned above, it feels as if we’re asking recruiters to dumb down their choice of words to make their job descriptions more “female-friendly”.

As this ABC article points out, there are some job ads that overtly reach out to male applicants when using words like “cameraman” or “chairman”.

“But the masculine-coded words on the gender decoder's list are less obvious than that,” says political reporter Ashlynne McGhee.

“Challenging, courageous, confident, decisive, determined, intellect, opinion and logic are all words said to discourage women from applying for jobs. In other words, being challenging, courageous, confident, decisive, determined and intellectual are considered masculine traits.

On the flipside, gentle, pleasant, warm, inclusive and child are considered female-friendly by the decoder,” she says.

Tasked with fixing a problem that we didn’t create

There are a mountain of apps out there, designed to help us to “be better women”. Like ‘Just Not Sorry’, a Gmail plug-in designed to pull you up for using “apologetic” language, such as “sorry”, “just” and “I’m no expert”.

I see the merit in what the app’s creators are trying to do but at the same time, we have better things to do with our time. We’re busy trying to get on with our jobs, sometimes at the same time as allowing human life form inside our own bodies. Can’t we just tend to our emails in peace without being slapped on the wrist for being a bad feminist? Plus, should we really have to mirror the language of a man in order to be taken seriously?

Once again women are tasked with fixing a problem that is society-made. This advice has been passed on to us for generations; don’t walk home alone, don’t wear that, don’t hang out there, don’t say sorry, don’t forget to smile.

Well you know what? I’m over it. I want to be a dominant ninja content creator who plays ping-pong and I’ll be damned if anyone tries to stop me.

....that was too harsh. I’m sorry.

Kate Neilson is the founding editor at Twenty Something Humans. She likes eating toast in bed and drinking an Aperol Spritz in the sun. Lurk her @katiepotatierose.

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