The Power of Inclusive Language in Recruitment

As individuals, we all see the world through a different lens depending on our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. This influences our judgment and assessment of others and the situations we are confronted with. Collectively, we hold beliefs and assumptions about groups of people, that are often subconscious, based on their class, background, age, gender, ethnicity, or ability. These stereotypes evolve at various stages of our lives and influence the way we interact with others, react to situations, or make decisions both in our personal and professional lives.

But why does it matter when talking about recruitment and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I) in the workplace?

The impact of stereotyping and unconscious bias on recruitment is significant and contributes to continuing inequalities in the workplace. Research suggests that the language we use has a major impact on the career options people feel are available to them. Better understanding the relationship between bias and language can help organisations identify and reduce unconscious biases in their recruitment processes and widen their talent pool.

Understanding the impact of unconscious biases in recruitment

When recruiting for a new role, organisations may already have a ‘type’ of person in mind, and this can alter their judgment when reviewing applications. Research from Yale has shown that when presented with identical applications, the only difference being one had the name Jennifer and the other had John, all recruiters, including women recruiters, favoured John’s application across each criteria of competence, hireability, mentoring, and recommended a higher starting salary. All the recruiters had training in being objective, but all favoured John’s application over Jennifer’s identical one – on a subconscious level John was deemed a more fitting candidate based solely on his gender.

However, there are many solutions and steps employers can take to reduce biases when reviewing applications. Blind recruitment is an effective tool for organisations that has proven to increase the number of women getting to the final stages of the recruitment process.

But blind recruitment alone is not enough to mitigate biases at the various stages of the recruitment process. Having a ‘type’ of person in mind when recruiting for a role not only impacts decision-making when reviewing applications but also has an effect when defining the requirements for the job and drafting the job description. Equally, the way a company represents itself in their job adverts can be a determining factor in the diversity of candidates who apply for the advertised role. As a result, it is critical to understand the power that words and language have in recruitment materials and how they can influence job seekers’ interest in a specific role or organisation.  

Understanding who your recruitment materials speak to/resonate with

It is easy to assume the language we use is neutral, but several studies have concluded otherwise.

Academic research by the University of Waterloo and Duke University defined a series of words which socially, culturally, and historically carry a stereotypical weight towards a particular gender. The researchers found that language used in job recruitment materials can maintain gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations. It showed that the inadvertent and subtle use of masculine language or words that were more associated with the male gender discouraged women from applying for these jobs. Whereas when feminine language was used instead to describe the same job role women were more attracted to the job description. While the study showed that both men and women show a preference for job descriptions matching their gender, this affected women more than their male counterparts.

Based on this research, Total Jobs analysed over 75,000 job adverts for gendered language. They found that only 20% of job adverts were gender neutral. Masculine coded language was mostly used in science, sales and in senior positions, whereas feminine coded language was commonly found across social care, hospitality and supporting roles.

In 2019, LinkedIn research showed that when words like ‘aggressive’ were used in a job description to describe a company’s workplace, 44% of women (and 33% of men) would be discouraged from applying. The research also highlighted that a quarter of women would be discouraged from working somewhere described as ‘demanding.’

Because language can have a bias towards a gender, it is important to consider this when writing job descriptions. Commonly used words and phrases in recruitment materials can reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and inadvertently exclude certain groups from applying for roles. Below are a few examples of commonly used ‘masculine’ words in job adverts. Replacing these words in the job description can encourage a wider range of potential candidates to apply.   

Ambitious                         →                         Forward thinking / Growth mindset

Assertive                           →                         Ability to articulate vision / ideas clearly

Competitive                     →                         Forward thinking / Growth mindset / (Has a) Vision

Driven                               →                         Motivated / Enthusiastic / Positive / Passionate   

Improving the inclusivity of your job description – beyond language

If the language used in your job description is essential to attract a wider range of candidates, other aspects also need to be considered such as the structure, content, and tone of the advert.

  • Providing a diversity statement in your job description tells people your organisation welcomes applications from people of all backgrounds. Some people might not think a role or organisation is a good fit for them because of their gender, disability, or ethnicity.
  • Providing the salary, benefits, and flexible working options can help potential candidates assess whether the role is suitable for their circumstances.
  • Ensuring imagery and pictures used reflect the diversity of your organisation.
  • Mentioning your company’s culture and values to help potential candidates assess if their values align with yours.

And finally, think about your advertisement channels and where your audience is looking for job opportunities, diverse job boards can help you access talent you may not have otherwise reached – ‘if you ever fish in the same pond, you can only ever catch the same fish!’

About Equate Scotland

Equate Scotland are the national experts in Scotland for gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and the Built Environment (STEM). Established in 2006, we encourage a universal approach to address gender equality in STEM. We work with women at every stage of the talent pipeline from students to management, and support organisations to improve their ED&I practices, providing them with the tools they need to tackle gender bias and inequality in their organisation.

Did you know?

The Equate CareerHub is a dedicated platform addressing the gender imbalance in the STEM sector. Through encouraging inclusive recruitment practices and providing a recruitment website that connects employers committed to ED&I with women studying, working, or looking to work in STEM.

To find out more, please reach out to careerhub@napier.ac.uk