Words matter. And the way we use them in job adverts can dictate whether or not people bother to apply. This is a big problem if you’re a business trying to recruit more women and ethnic minorities into your workforce. So can tech help remove these unconscious biases?
A job description that uses the phrase “We’re looking for someone to manage a team” may seem innocuous enough.
Textio uses artificial intelligence to pore over job descriptions in real time, highlighting any terms that could come across as particularly masculine or feminine. The software then suggests alternatives.
Textio’s Kieran Snyder (right) with co-founder Jensen Harris
When Australian software giant Atlassian used Textio’s software for its job-ad copy, the results were striking. It saw an 80% increase in the hiring of women in technical roles globally over a two-year period.
“We don’t know why, but this is what the data shows.”
Back in 2011, researchers from Canada and the US found that job posts using more masculine wording “led women to have a lower sense that they would belong in the position or company than the same ads using more feminine wording,” the report stated.
The researchers also found that gender preferences can be conveyed subtly through words such as “competitive,” or “leader”, usually associated with male stereotypes, while words such as “support” and “interpersonal” are associated with female stereotypes.
Building on this kind of research, another recruitment tech company, TalVista, assesses job descriptions and highlights “discouraging” terms in red and “inviting” terms in green, assigning an overall thumb up or thumb down score to the text.
TalVista boss Elaine Orler says recruitment is prone to “unconscious bias”
“Diversity and inclusion are always critical for talent acquisition,” TalVista chief executive Elaine Orler says.
“But when a job post uses words like ‘strong’ or ‘dynamic’ many candidates are repelled but they don’t know why; it’s in their unconscious bias but they can’t pinpoint why.”
Tech firm Applied also offers gender-balancing advice for job ads and a tool that scores the overall reading age of the ad.
“It’s remarkable the number of job descriptions that are written with the same density and complexity as a Harvard Law Review article when you definitely don’t need a PhD to do the job itself,” says Applied chief executive and co-founder Kate Glazebrook.
Applied boss Kate Glazebrook wants to rid job ads of dense management speak
Even the format of a job ad can make a difference.
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And those with the most gender-diverse boardrooms are 15% more likely to enjoy above-average profitability than companies with a more homogenous make-up, it found.
One report by US economists found that moving from an all-male or all-female office to one split evenly along gender lines could boost revenue by roughly 41%.
Dr Wendy Hirsh, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies in Sussex, remarks: “There is a growing awareness in the UK to be inclusive. Employers realise, with the rise of a skill shortage here, that if you skew a job ad to only one group of applicants, you could be missing out on some very talented workers.”
Data analytics and machine learning have certainly enabled far greater scrutiny of the language we use in recruitment, with decisions based on hard evidence rather than hunches.
But as helpful as these writing services may be, some human resources (HR) experts caution against their overuse.
William Tincup worries that an over-reliance on software analysis could make job ads boring
William Tincup, an HR tech consultant and president of recruitment news outlet RecruitingDaily.com, says editing these job ads so thoroughly “could water them down and make them so vanilla no one feels emotionally attached to them.
“You don’t want applicants to get bored by the text.”
Dr Hirsh points out that where a job post is listed can also make a big difference to who applies.
For example, if the post is announced on social media, those who aren’t on those networks, most likely older candidates, may not even see it, she says.
“Going to a specialist recruitment agency to post the job will also rule out those who don’t know about that agency,” she adds.
But despite his reservations, Mr Tincup welcomes services such as Textio and Applied.
“They’re trying to solve a problem that hasn’t exactly been solved, because these days so many people just cut-and-paste job descriptions, from one to the next.”
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