Does gendered wording in job descriptions sustain gender inequality? - Women's Agenda

Does gendered wording in job descriptions sustain gender inequality?

This year Twitter, GoogleYahoo and LinkedIn, have shared their statistics on low representation of females at every level of their organisations, declaring much work ahead to make changes.

In October’s Harvard Business Review, Professor Willims, Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law & Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, is optimistic that instead of taking the standard diversity approach (offering sensitivity training, setting up mentoring networks, and introducing other incremental changes focusing on altering women’s behavior) if any industry can make changes, the tech industry — considered the leaders in disruption — may be the ones to do it.

Intentionally disrupting the current subtle and not so subtle business processes that perpetuate gender inequity requires an acceptance that our workplaces are not Meritocracies.

The gender composition of the Australian workforce reveals men comprise more than 75% of the full-time workforce in mining; construction; electricity, gas, water and waste services; transport, postal and warehousing industries, and nearly 60% of professional, scientific and technical services roles are occupied by men. There is a current skills shortage in Australian male-dominated industries, however despite government intervention and decades of organisational strategies to attract more women to these occupations, the numbers are barely moving. There is research that shows men to be overconfident that they possessed the skills and qualifications required to apply for jobs.

Conversely, there is much popular literature on women’s lack of confidence playing a significant role in women not applying for jobs, promotion or pay negotiations. Quoted in Sandberg’s Lean In, The Confidence Gap, McKinsey Quarterly, and many other sources is the Hewlett Packard research that women apply for promotions only when they are confident they have met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men apply when they think they can meet 60% of the job requirements.

Only there is actually no actual identifiable source for this ‘research’. The Hewlett Packard research doesn’t exist. It has become a convenient story we can replay to explain gender differences and focus on fixing the women instead of addressing organisational processes that sustain gender inequity. There are both overconfident and unconfident men and women in the workplace; see Cordelia Fine’s research that ‘the messages about male brains and female brains inevitably reinforce gender stereotypes that act against women in the workplace’. Gender stereotypes do nothing to address the issue that Australian industries sideline a large percentage of qualified candidates through inherently bias recruitment and selection processes.

Social dominance theory is a multi-faced theory that demonstrates how groups in society sustain group based dominance. Sidanius & Pratto (1999) assert that institutional-level contributors reinforce and perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace through devices such as reinforcing the view that the workplace is a meritocracy, and other more subtle mechanisms such as gendered language in job descriptions. Costs to equity, productivity, and innovation are risked when companies hiring processes are implicitly biased. The Australian Human Commission’s Women in Male-dominated Industries Report states that historically, job advertising in male-dominated industries has been focused towards men, and concludes that job advertisements cue women on their potential fit in a workplace. Gaucher, Friesen and Kay’s research identifies that gendered language is contained not just in job titles, but throughout job descriptions using gendered wording such as ‘dominate the marketplace, aggressively meet targets, or
driven to leading results’. The research revealed that masculine wording was more likely to be used in job descriptions in male-dominated industries.

Test cases showed that where masculine wording was used in job descriptions, both male and female applicants made assumptions it was a male-dominated environment. When job descriptions are linked to typically masculine characteristics, research has shown male candidates are more likely to apply. Female applicants made decisions on whether they would belong in an organisation based on gendered wording in job descriptions, which impacted on the appeal of a job irrespective of whether their qualifications and skills matched. These findings conclude that women with skills and qualifications suitable for jobs in male-dominated industries eliminate themselves from applying due to cues from the job description. Heliman’s research shows when there is minimal representation of women in applicant pools (specifically less than 25%) there is a strong tendency to unfavorably evaluate them.

Petersen, Saporta, & Seidl’s found that over a decade, women in the IT industry were just as likely as men to be hired once they were in the candidate slate.

In my previous workplace as IBM’s Diversity Recruitment Leader, I created many bias interrupters including making the gender field mandatory in the job application system which demonstrated substantially less females applying for roles across the organisation. Reviewing the significant literature on gendered job descriptions, I introduced a pilot project to ensure gender-neutral language. This pilot was key to increasing female experienced professional hires from 23-30%. Australian IBM General Manager Andrew Stevens stated “That is the highest rate in years. It was a small thing to do, you could almost disregard it, but it had a big effect”.

Addressing hiring and selection processes are just the tip of the iceberg in examining why women are continually underrepresented in IT industries, not to mention significant retention issues of women in tech. In the words of Professor Willims, instead of focusing on fixing the women, focus on fixing non-meritocratic business processes withbias interrupters that are based on objective metrics and iterative (allowing companies to start with pilots then scaling up).


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