Gender bias ‘starts before a candidate is even hired’

Stereotyping is embedded in job descriptions and varies significantly by sector, study reveals

A large-scale study of British recruitment adverts has revealed that that the use of gender-biased wording in advertising decreases the likelihood of job applications from female candidates.

Sex discrimination in the workplace, whether conscious or unconscious, may begin at an even earlier stage than many believe, according to the results from a study of 77,000 ads, conducted by Totaljobs and reviewed against research from two US universities, Waterloo and Duke.

Among the adverts reviewed, 478,175 words were thought to carry a gender bias, with ads for social care and admin roles most likely to use female-biased language, at 87 per cent and 67 per cent respectively. By contrast, sales and management roles were among the ads most likely to use male-biased language, at 16 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, said: “This data shows how easy it is to be biased in our use of language without even thinking about it. It also shows why employers need to use positive action to target underrepresented groups. A passive approach won’t work. The fact is we need to strip away our biases if we want to get the best person for the job.”

The study found that gender-biased language was often used to describe traditional ‘alpha male’ roles, and could dissuade those who did not identify with the job description from applying.

The most commonly used male-biased words in adverts were: lead, analyse, competitive, active and confident. In contrast, adverts that sought softer skills were often unconsciously slanted towards women, deploying words such as: support, responsible, understanding, dependable and committed.

Chloé Chambraud, gender equality director at Business in the Community, said this type of gender bias in recruitment was potentially damaging, as it may hold back female applicants from applying to senior roles. “In 2014, Hewlett-Packard found that men apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the qualifications but women only apply if they meet 100 per cent,” she said. “This type of language in job adverts may exacerbate that and reduce the number of women applying for senior roles, which needs to change if we are to create truly diverse workforces at every level.”

The study also found stark regional differences in gender-biased job descriptions. London was found to have the most male-biased language, which covered 47 per cent of job adverts. Manchester was found to be the most gender-neutral city, with 16 per cent of adverts deemed to be gender-neutral and the remainder evenly split between male and female-biased language.

“Employers must be particularly careful when drafting job descriptions to ensure that they do not use terms that discriminate – directly or indirectly – against people because of factors such as their sex, age, race, sexual orientation, religion or belief or because they have a disability,” said Elisabeth Kynaston, employment lawyer at B P Collins. 

“This means avoiding obviously gendered terms; for example, stating that the business is looking for a ‘salesman’ or ‘waitress’.”

Although using gender-biased language is not technically against the law, employers must be careful not to discriminate against a particular gender because they consciously or unconsciously believe that the role would be best filled by either a man or woman.

Kynaston told People Management that employers should also avoid language that is less obviously discriminatory, but that could deter a potential candidate from applying for a role. Words like ‘dynamic’, for example, which suggests that the business is looking to take on a younger person, or ‘experienced’ or ‘mature’ – which, conversely, suggest someone older – may be problematic.

“This is a very complex area of law and can be a bit of a minefield for employers, so we always suggest that, if in doubt, businesses should take legal advice before issuing the job description”’ said Kynaston.

Despite the findings, Chambraud said that it was not enough only to address this language bias to tackle the gender equality gap in the workforce. “If employers want to create truly inclusive workplaces, they will need to address the root causes of inequality, from reducing bias and increasing transparency in recruitment, appraisal and promotion processes, to normalising agile working and offering financially viable parental leave packages for all parents. The time for talking is over; if we want men and women to have equal lives at work and at home, now is the time to act.”

Workplace gender pay inequality remains a pressing topic. Last month, the European Institute for Gender Equality revealed that gender equality at work had barely improved over the past 10 years, while one in 10 employers confessed to paying women less than men.