No ninjas required: How language influences job applications

In this guest post, Rebekah Di Blasi reveals how the words you use in your company's job ads determines how well they will perform in attracting candidates.

With 100,000 more media technology professionals required in Australia by 2020 and only one in four female ICT graduates, employers must do everything they can to build diverse technology teams.


As the ‘war for talent’ persists, particularly in technology, leading organisations are fighting for your attention, competing to ensure their message is the loudest and most compelling so that you decide to work for them.

If you read that sentence and found your mouse hovering over the back button, you’re probably a woman. Pick apart my sentence above and you’ll find five ‘masculine-coded’ words and no ‘feminine-coded’ words according to the 2011 paper entitled ‘Evidence That Gendered Wording Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality‘.

If you’re a woman in media, no doubt you’ve scrolled through countless job roles advertising for “ninjas”, “bad-asses” or “rock stars,” all widely considered to have more masculine connotations.

In fact, according to Indeed’s Job Trends database, the word “ninja” soared in popularity in 2016, increasingly appearing in job postings by almost 70%.

Unknowingly using masculine wording in job advertisements has been shown to impact how job-seekers think about an employer’s gender diversity and it turn, this leads to less interest and fewer job applications from women.

It’s an easy mistake to make and it’s one I’ve made myself. Struggling for several months to recruit a ‘General Manager’, I searched instead for a ‘Leader of Magical Digital People’ and found my unicorn. My male unicorn.

Compared with my first attempt, which yielded 33% female applicants, my second attempt attracted a lot more interest but only 9% female applicants.

Although I was targeting the right audience in terms of relevant skills and experience and I eventually secured a great candidate, the new job ad had inadvertently shut out an entire gender using words like “confident,” “authoritative” and “leader.”

More feminine words such as “connected”, “collaborative” and “enthusiastic” would have also described an ideal candidate but were unconsciously overlooked.

More and more organisations, including my own, are committed to building diverse teams that are more productive and make better decisions but gendered language is holding them back.

Below are my three tips to ensuring your recruitment messaging avoids gender-bias.

  1. Use a word decoder. There are a number of great resources available to decode your job ad and ensure it is more gender neutral. ‘The Gender Decoder for Job Ads‘ was built using the 2011 study and you can copy and paste your entire advertisement into it for analysis. Textio is another great tool that uses advanced machine learning to predict whether your job ad will perform well amongst a diverse audience.
  1. Uncover your own unconscious bias. Is the language you use reflective of your own unconscious bias? Facebook recently open-sourced its Unconscious Bias training. Use it to reflect or start a conversation with your colleagues about how understanding and managing unconscious bias can ensure a more diverse and inclusive hiring process.
  1. Get a second opinion. If you’re not sure whether your job ad will be appealing to females, ask for feedback. Find a group of peers who will give you an honest opinion on whether the language is neutral or gender-biased.

Rebekah Di Blasi is the head of talent and culture at KJR Consulting. She will be speaking about ‘Women in Tech and our Role in the Digital Industries Sector’ at Pause 2017, which runs February 8-10 at Fed Square, Melbourne. 


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