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Wanted: Gender-free job ads

DUKE (US) — The use of “gendered words” in job ads may perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace, a new study finds.

Words like “competitive” and “dominant” (male) versus “compassionate” and “nurturing” (female) can signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. Both men and women show a preference for job descriptions matching their gender—women more strongly so.

“When we ask people why they don’t like a job, they come up with all kinds of explanations. Not one participant picked up on gendered language,” says Aaron Kay, the senior author of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and associate professor of management, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University.

Kay and co-authors Danielle Gaucher, a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University, and Justin Friesen, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, examined more than 4,000 recent job ads. After finding gender-based wording differences in employment postings, the team used those differences to create masculine and feminine job advertisements for identical positions, then asked people to rate the jobs.

For example, the masculine advertisement for a registered nurse read, “We are determined to deliver superior medical treatment tailored to each individual patient,” while the feminine advertisement said, “We are committed to providing top quality health care that is sympathetic to the needs of our patients.”

“We found these wording differences affected the job’s appeal independent of the type of job it was,” Friesen says. “When we used more masculine wording, the traditionally female-dominated jobs became more appealing to men. Using more feminine wording made the traditionally male-dominated jobs more appealing to women.”

This unconscious response could be one reason why women are less likely to apply to jobs traditionally held by men, including those in science and technology, says Kay.

“People don’t realize the cues being sent to them,” Kay says. “Consistently finding certain jobs less appealing—without being aware of the external reasons why—may lead some women away from occupations they may otherwise have found interesting.”

Because every study participant missed the presence of gendered language, the researchers believe it’s likely that companies unintentionally place gendered job advertisements.

“Many companies want to diversify,” Gaucher says. “Companies that use highly masculine wording may, in reality, be just as welcoming to their female employees as they are to their male employees.”

The researchers received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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