Gendered Language Is Tricky to Define — and It Could Be Costing You Candidates

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It has long been accepted in HR and recruiting circles that language matters. From the words you use to describe a company’s culture to the specific titles you give your roles, the way you say something can have a bigger impact on talent attraction and retention than the substance of what you’re saying.

A new report from LinkedIn, “Language Matters: How Words Impact Men and Women in the Workplace,” digs deeper into this phenomenon, with a specific focus on gendered language at work. With help from Rosie Campbell, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, the report takes a close look at how men and women present themselves on LinkedIn and in the workplace.

We’re Not So Different After All …

One of the most interesting findings of LinkedIn’s study is that there is actually significant overlap between how men and women view themselves professionally.

For example, men and women are both prone to using the same three words and phrases to describe themselves during job interviews: “hard-working” (used by 58 percent of women and 49 percent of men), “good at my job” (48 percent of women and 42 percent of men), and “confident” (42 percent of women and 40 percent of men).

Another thing men and women share: a respect for soft skills. But here the differences begin to show up: 61 percent of women associate soft skills with the female gender, while 52 percent of men associate them with the male gender.

… But We Don’t Use the Exact Same Language in the Same Ways

Diverging gender associations around soft skills are only the beginning. To backtrack to the matter of job-interview descriptors, for example, women are far more likely to describe themselves in terms of their character, using words such as “likable” and “supportive” with greater frequency than their male counterparts.

“Our data also shows that while both genders are keen to represent themselves as ‘team players’ on their LinkedIn profiles, men tend to focus more on their technical skills, whereas women are more likely to make greater reference to their education and personal attributes,” explains Sarah O’Brien, senior director of global insights at LinkedIn.

Where do these differing vocabularies come from? Media representation may be one of the key forces at work here. According to LinkedIn’s report, while both men and women find descriptors like “powerful,” “strong-willed,” and “confident” to be positive, media reports describe Mark Zuckerberg as “powerful” nearly six times as often as they use the word for Sheryl Sandberg.

“The language used in media influences society,” O’Brien says. “Nuances in language can enforce and create social norms and even perpetuate bias. An awareness of these assumptions in the media offers an opportunity for recruiters and hiring managers to look inward to better understand how their own assumptions could be impacting the way they find and hire candidates.”

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Cultivating an Awareness of Gendered Language

Perhaps owing to its murky provenance, gendered language can be challenging to combat because it is so hard to define. As of now, no one has developed a strict criteria for reliably predicting the gender associations of a given word — but that doesn’t make gendered language any less real.

“While there’s no hard and fast rule to determine how different genders perceive language use, our research has found that using certain language in job descriptions can significantly reduce the number of female applicants your company receives,” O’Brien says. “For example, we found that 44 percent of women (vs. 33 percent of men) would be discouraged from applying if the word ‘aggressive’ was included in a job description, and one in four women would be discouraged from working somewhere described as ‘demanding.’”

This puts recruiting professionals in a bit of a bind. One the one hand, using gendered language needlessly limits your reach in the talent market. On the other hand, unconscious biases like gendered language are, well, unconscious. It is doubly difficult to be aware of a bias when its definition is also hazy.

Part of the solution may be standardization. As O’Brien points out, men and women may have different perceptions of soft skills, but using a standard set of interview questions to gauge the soft skills of all applicants, regardless of gender, can make comparisons between candidates much more accurate. O’Brien also notes the power of description: The more in-depth your describe the kinds of candidates you’re looking for in your job ads and other employer branding materials, the less likely you will be to emphasize one gender over another.

O’Brien points to the findings of another LinkedIn report, according to which recruiters are 13 percent less likely to click on a woman’s LinkedIn profile while searching for talent. But when recruiters did click on women’s profiles, they generally determined male and female candidates to be qualified at similar rates.

“Cultivating awareness of this tendency can provide opportunities to spot promising candidates who have the skills you need, but may not be sharing them as prominently,” she adds. “You can make it a best practice to look beyond the candidate’s headline to get to know the person behind the profile.”

While concrete actions like the ones outlined above will go a long way toward mitigating unconscious gender bias in recruiting, the problem can’t ever be fully eradicated without frank, meaningful discussion of the matter.

“With the ‘Language Matters’ report, we hope to spark a dialogue that would, at a minimum, encourage hiring managers to take a closer look at the kinds of words they’re using in their job descriptions and talent branding materials,” O’Brien says. “The intent of the report is to encourage companies, recruiters, and even job seekers to consider how gender can impact the candidate journey. The goal is to foster balance and galvanize talent teams to implement strategies to attract more gender-balanced candidates.”

[Ed. note: As LinkedIn points out in its report, “Gender identity isn’t binary.” While LinkedIn recognizes this fact, the company’s gender data “is inferred on the basis of first name and currently does not account for other gender identities.” LinkedIn says it looks forward to “sharing more inclusive gender data” as more and more of its members choose to self-report their gender identities.]

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