How to Weed Out Bias From Your Technical Job Ads

Don’t turn away great candidates before they even apply.
Tammy Xu
October 11, 2020
Updated: October 14, 2020
Tammy Xu
October 11, 2020
Updated: October 14, 2020

In 2011, psychologists from the University of Waterloo and Duke University published a research paper that studied whether job ads in predominantly male fields used wording associated with “masculine” characteristics — such as “dominant,” “confident” and “competitive” — and whether gendered wording potentially deterred women from applying to those jobs.

The result, unfortunately, was yes. They found that job ads for fields with a higher ratio of men had more masculine language, and that those ads appealed less to women. The researchers reported that women were deterred not because they weren’t qualified for the jobs, but because the gendered wording implied the workplace was not gender diverse and that women wouldn’t belong there.

HOW TO WRITE INCLUSIVE JOB DESCRIPTIONS

  • Check for gendered wording. Avoid relying overly on masculine language that can deter women from applying.
  • Use plain speech rather than corporate jargon.
  • Avoid phrases that imply a preference for young candidates, such as “fast-moving.”
  • Don’t make level of schooling a requirement unless a candidate actually needs a degree to do the job, and don’t put too much emphasis on GPAs.
  • Avoid excessive and unnecessary requirements.

Almost a decade later, the gap for women and other minority groups in tech, such as Black and Latinx workers, has not closed. At companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, between 77 and 88 percent of the workforce are men, and over 84 percent are white and Asian, according to Wired’s reporting on the tech giants’ annual diversity numbers. At the same time, calls for tech to diversify its ranks have become more urgent.

It’s a good time for companies to take a critical look at their own job ads. Those ads are the first point of contact between a company and the greater tech workforce, and the language used can either deter good candidates or open up a workplace to a wider, more diverse pool of talent.

Common problems with job ads are that they can be alienating — like the ones in the psychology study — or sometimes even downright discriminatory. They may ask for more qualifications than are needed to perform the job well, sometimes asking for more experience with technology frameworks than any candidate could have — in some cases, this goes even for the creator of that technology framework.

Because biased wording in job ads is largely subconscious, it can take active effort on the part of companies to spot problems and create more inclusive ones. But doing so can help companies recruit from a more diverse pool of candidates.

MORE ON DIVERSITY + INCLUSIONWithout Diverse Leadership, Tech Will Be Slow to Change

 

gender balance illustration
Gendered wording in job ads can affect a company’s candidate pool. | Image: Shutterstock

Eliminating Gender Bias

One of the simplest things companies can do is train hiring managers to be on the lookout for problematic wording in their job ads. The psychology study is a good start — it includes two lists of words that existing research have established are coded as masculine or feminine, such as “confident” or “considerate.” Those lists also form the basis of Kat Matfield’s free gender decoder tool, which anyone can use by copying over the text of a job ad. The tool parses the text and compares it against the lists of masculine and feminine words to calculate bias.

But Jessica Khoshnood, who leads data insights at Textio, an augmented writing platform that gives companies real-time suggestions for writing inclusive job ads and recruiting emails, said that writing a good job ad isn’t so much about avoiding all masculine words as it is about being mindful of how language is perceived and using words that appeal to a broad range of candidates.

“A job description is never going to be just a single word,” Khoshnood said. “It’s how you’re balancing some of that biased language throughout, to make sure that if you are using some masculine language, you’re also using other feminine language to balance it out to make sure that you’re getting to, in the end, a neutral tone.”

“Make sure that if you are using some masculine language, you’re also using other feminine language to balance it out.”

Khoshnood also pointed out that, in the nine years since the psychology study was published, language use may have changed and diminished the effectiveness of only comparing job descriptions against the study’s original list of words.

“That language is changing, and so you need something that’s going to stay up to date so that you understand the language patterns that are working in today’s workforce,” she said.

Hew Ingram, software engineer at Applied, agrees on the need to stay up to date, but feels that the study’s list of words were still relevant.

“The paper isn’t about how we use language, it’s about the way we react to those words,” he said.

Applied, a London-based recruitment platform that helps companies reduce unconscious bias within their recruiting processes, provides tools for writing more inclusive job ads and reducing bias when assessing candidates. Its text analysis tool for job ads is based in part on gendered words from the 2011 study, and provides real-time suggestions for more inclusive rephrasing.

Unfortunately, very little academic work has been done since the 2011 study to deepen our understanding of how gendered language affects people’s perceptions of job ads and to keep the word lists up to date.

 

job applicants illustration
To get a diverse pool of qualified candidates, avoid phrases that reflect bias. | Image: Shutterstock

Buzzwords Can Turn Away Diverse Candidates

Gender bias isn’t the only way to deter desired candidates. For one, job ads are often guilty of using confusing and alienating corporate jargon, Khoshnood said.

“Plain speech, really describing what you’re trying to say, is always going to get you further,” she said about the best way to communicate with applicants. In other words: Hold off on ambiguous phrases such as “leverage” and “KPI.”

“You think that by using corporate colloquialisms you’re going to be building a community and you’re going to be attracting people who already understand the space that you’re in,” Khoshnood said. “But really what you’re doing is alienating a large group of people, mostly minorities — folks who have the skills and qualities to succeed in the role, but maybe [aren’t familiar with] the exact phrases that you’re using in corporate jargon.”

Bias in job ads can also target specific groups of workers, such as wording that reflects ageism and ableism. Phrases such as “fast-paced” and “fast-moving” could convey to job seekers that a company is only interested in younger applicants, Ingram said.

To encourage applications from workers with disabilities, companies should make it explicit that they are able to make reasonable accommodations.

“Plain speech, really describing what you’re trying to say, is always going to get you further.”

Khoshnood said it’s important to be “making sure that you are using language that really promotes and shares your ability to make those reasonable accommodations, so that folks are feeling included.”

Another job description practice that can prematurely filter out good candidates is requiring a bachelor’s degree or a certain level of GPA.

“When you put that in there, you’re assuming that someone went to a four-year college or got their two-year associate’s degree, and you’re not open to the possibility that trade schools or boot camps are going to be just as effective — or a certain number of years in a role maybe is better than having that four-year degree,” Khoshnood said. “So, starting to question some of those things that we focus on as traditional, and just saying, ‘You know, maybe we can throw that out because we’re trying to think outside the box a little bit more.’”

Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040, a non-profit that works to promote Black and Latinx workers in tech, said that students who work part-time jobs during school because their families aren’t able to pay for tuition may be unable to maintain as high of GPAs as students who don’t have to work. Companies requiring minimum academic criteria perpetuate that economic inequality onto the next generation of workers.

 

checklist
Are the requirements in your job ad a checklist or a wish list? | Image: Shutterstock

Do Candidates Really Need All Those Qualifications?

Job ads also commonly ask for far more skills and qualifications than are needed to perform the job well. The description might call for familiarity with a long list of programming languages, or for a significant number of years of experience with certain technologies — sometimes more years of experience than a technology has been around for.

On Reddit, developers poked fun at an IBM job ad that required a minimum of 12 years of experience in Kubernetes, which was initially released six years ago. One user shared that they had worked at a company that asked for more years of experience than necessary on purpose: “I was told that they do that on purpose to scare away people. ‘If you say you need three years experience, you’ll get candidates with one year, and if you say you need five, you’ll get candidates with three.’”

Alexandria Butler, who works in tech as a product manager, expressed her frustration with excessive requirements in job ads, and explained how it can perpetuate privileges and inequalities.

“Why do we have these job descriptions that are asking people to cure cancer when they don’t actually need to cure cancer to do this job?”

“Why do we have these job descriptions that are asking people to cure cancer when they don't actually need to cure cancer to do this job?” Butler said. “We have a situation where we have white straight men who are walking around and look at a job description, and say, ‘Hey, I have two have these five things, I’m going to apply.’ Everybody else, we have literally been trained not to do that.”

Khoshnood said that companies should shift from having a “fixed” mindset about what candidates currently are able to do, to having a “growth” mindset about their capacity to take on new challenges.

“A fixed mindset turns away minorities and women from applying,” Khoshnood said. “Just in having that picklist, you’re turning away folks who would actually be really well qualified. Whereas when you focus on someone being able to learn in the role, to grow into it, you’re putting the focus less on these defined qualities that you may or may not have, and being open to the possibilities of different types of backgrounds that maybe are transferable but aren’t the paper list that you have in mind.”

 

employees
Image: Shutterstock

But Aren’t We Supposed to Be Weeding Out Candidates?

Maybe this focus on inclusivity seems excessive — after all, isn’t the whole point of the recruiting process to whittle down the number of applicants? It seems that by writing job ads using as inclusive of language as possible, and not having requirements such as college degrees or minimum years of experience, a company would be bringing an impossible amount of work on itself in the hiring process.

On the contrary, Ingram said, relying on the language of a job advertisement to do the work of filtering out possible candidates for you is the wrong way to hire. He pointed to a 1998 psychology study from the University of Iowa and Michigan State University that showed the amount of education and the years of job experience an individual had did not predict job performance well, compared with assessment with work samples and structured interviews. The process of narrowing down candidates should be at the assessment step, not the job advertisement step.

“You’re actually just losing out on great candidates,” he said about using job ads to filter candidates. “You want to be using a selection method that is shown to be really good. And if you know that your hiring process is amazing, then everyone will apply and you know you’re going to find the right person. Getting more applicants, therefore, with a really good hiring process, is exactly what you want.”

Ingram said hiring strong candidates doesn’t just come down to job ads, but requires eliminating bias from the whole hiring process.

“If you make your job description really unbiased, you will get a more diverse set of candidates,” he said. But if the rest of the recruitment process is biased, “you’re not going to meaningfully change the outcome. So actually, an overhaul of the entire process is what it’s going to actually take.”

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