Writing better job ads

The language and appearance of your job ad can enhance its appeal to women, or it can put them off. How can you ensure women apply for your vacancies?

Research has shown that the way you write and design your jobs ads can significantly affect the balance of genders among applicants. Your choice of words, typeface and colour can make a difference to the kinds of candidates who can imagine themselves ‘at home’ in your organisation and, thus, who applies. This is not necessarily a conscious process, but these choices will affect whether you connect with a diverse applicant pool, and evidence from the tech industry shows the genderedness of the ad will affect whether you end up appointing a man or a woman.

A job ad advertises more than just the job. It represents the institutional culture of the employer, and gives an insight into the attitudes and values of the current staff. So when crafting an ad, you should:

  • Use gender-neutral language
  • Think about how you use photos, typefaces and colour
  • Be explicit about your commitment to employing women
  • Describe the activity of the advertised role, as well as the potential recruit
  • Use narrative descriptions, not lists of bullet points
  • Be flexible in what you require from applicants
  • Think of new forums where women are likely to see the ad

Use gender-neutral language

Firstly, and most obviously, avoid gendered job titles such as ‘chairman’, which should instead be ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’. Where neutral terms have strong gender associations, such as nurse or engineer, make sure that your pronouns are diverse and/or neutral, for example ‘she or he should be qualified to…’ , ‘the appointee will…’, ‘where they will find…’, or ‘you will be collaborating with teams across the organisation…’.

More subtle intimations of gender can be found in adjectives and verbs. ‘Our world- leading company has battled to achieve its present turnover of £400M’ looks masculine when compared to, for example, ‘Our global company now has the financial resources to solve…’. Competitive words, superlatives, military metaphors, big claims and factual detail attract male applicants and adversely put off women, while cooperative words (‘global’, rather than ‘world-leading’), more general information, and looking to the future, will appeal to women as well as men.

It is not uncommon for companies in male-dominated areas, such as tech company, to include details about the high status and successes in a job ad, and to use language like ‘rock stars’ and ‘ninja coders’, and how staff all ‘work hard and play hard’. Such ads do not get many female applicants. Few women will relate either to the masculine language or to the intimation that the company has no work-life balance. To attract female applicants, avoid superlatives, exaggerations, and be careful of how you describe life at your company, and ask a diverse group of colleagues whether they think your ad is women-friendly.

Think about typography, colour and photos

More subtly still, studies show that we make consistent judgements about whether a typeface is masculine or feminine: Masculine typography has a square or geometric form, and is emphatically either blunt or spiky. Serif fonts are also considered masculine, as is bold type and capitals. Feminine typography favours curling or flowing shapes, and avoids bold, serifs and capitals.

Colour also has an obvious gender bias. We associate pinks and purples, especially in combination, with girls and women, whilst blues and crimsons are strongly associated with boys and men. But men and women also have different colour preferences. Men tend to prefer intense primary colours and deeper colours, whilst women prefer pastel shades and tints (any colour with white added). Both genders like blue, and neither particularly like brown or orange. It can be helpful to leaf through some magazines that are aimed at either men or women, and compare them with your job ad to see whether you need to think again.

If your ad or HR marketing materials include photos, make sure that they include women and are ethnically diverse. Carefully check icons and other images to make sure that they are gender neutral, for example, avoid using a icon of a man to denote engineers or of a woman to denote nurses. Overtly masculine designs deter women, but strongly feminine designs for a technical job may be so unusual as to be baffling. The task therefore is to stay neutral.

Publicly commit to employing more women

It is possible to make explicit statements about wanting to increase the recruitment of women in your organisation, without breaking the law on discrimination. The law does allow you to say that applications from suitably qualified women are especially welcomed, and you can also make a commitment that all women who meet the essential criteria will be interviewed. You cannot say that you will only interview women. Equality legislation can be subtle, so ask HR for advice on what you can say about recruiting women.

Mentioning diversity-related policies, such as your flexible working, holiday allowance, or other family friendly benefits, will help attract women. Although all jobs should allow flexible working requests and give holidays, the fact that you have chosen to say so explicitly shows that you are thinking about the well-being of all your staff.

Focus on required qualities or skills

After studying a list of required qualities or skills for a job, a woman will not apply if she does not meet all of the requirements; men will apply if they have about two-thirds, and assume that they can make up for any deficiencies once they’re in the job. Their success rate is still high, which suggests that it’s common for companies to list ‘requirements’ that aren’t actually essential. Ask yourself why you have picked specific selection criteria, and consider whether they could skew your applicant pool. If you re-use a previous job description, be sure to check it point-by-point with current staff.

To diversify your recruitment, allow your candidates to say which of their attributes might be useful in the role. For example, you could ask for examples of successful problem-solving or planning, and you could encourage applicants to draw on their non- work experience to illustrate personal qualities. Especially for people in later career stages, this experience might be of greater value than that ‘essential’ first-class degree.

Write a narrative, not a list

Because we know that women will not apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria, job ads should avoid bullet points and lists which make it too easy for a woman to find the one requirement she does not meet and thus rule herself out of contention.

Instead, write a narrative description. Jobs described in terms of their activity, interactions, and potential within the company tend to attract women; those that focus on the individual employee attract men. Women want to know what they will be doing; men want to know what they will be.

Always ask some colleagues to read a job advertisement before you publish it. A group of friendly critics from a range of backgrounds can help you spot any bias while there is still time to amend the advertisement.

Publish your ad where women will see it

Since you aim to diversify, don’t just advertise in the usual places but seek new outlets where you can reach a broader pool of applicants. Look for groups supporting women in your field, as they may run a jobs board or mailing lists. You could also ask colleagues to proactively approach qualified women, internally and externally, to encourage them to apply, or seek out organisations that support women in STEM, and ask their advice on where to post your ad.

Job ads do not exist in a vacuum. Most applicants will look at the employer’s website, so make sure that you address all these issues in your recruitment and marketing materials as well. Your carefully neutral or women-friendly advertisement must not be too different from the style of the company in general, or you may come across as insincere, or at least inconsistent, in your attitudes to women employees.

Posted in Advocacy & Policy.

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