Hidden bias in job adverts deters 50% of female applicants

Kalila Sangster
·3 min read
Latent bias is deeply ingrained in the UK workplace, according to a study. Photo: Getty
Latent bias is deeply ingrained in the UK workplace, according to a study. Photo: Getty

Gender biased language in job adverts deters as many as one in two female applicants from applying for roles, according to a study from Openreach.

The researchers created a new, consciously unbiased, job description for an entry level engineering role, with the language of the new advert carefully crafted to appeal to men and women equally, whilst actively combating some of the challenges women face in the pre-application phase of job hunting.

When looking at the gender-inclusive advert as part of the study, women’s interest in the role increased by more than 200%, with 60% reporting that this was down to the way it was written.

A third of women (31%) felt the original advert was more suited to a man than a woman, compared with just 13% of women for the new advert, in the survey of 2,000 UK women.

Latent bias is deeply ingrained in the UK workplace, according to the study. A quarter of women (24%) still feel certain careers are better suited to men than women, with 80% discounting engineering automatically.

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However, more than half (56%) were interested in the engineering job role once it had been rewritten and the word “engineer” had been taken out.

Chris Begeny, research fellow in gender and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter said: “The findings are extremely exciting as they demonstrated such a clear discrepancy between the two adverts and suggest that the latent barriers to application remain, illustrating how gender-inclusive ads could be vital to bringing more women into a range of sectors similarly viewed.

“All too often the rhetoric around issues of underrepresentation and improving women’s experiences in male-dominated sectors emphasises the idea that women need to ‘lean in’ and overcome their own ‘internal barriers’ — overcoming that lack of confidence or lack of perceived fit for a position that might lead women to pass up on an opportunity to pursue a particular job.

“Yet these ‘fix yourself’ strategies, often espoused as a method of empowerment, can perpetuate victim blaming. They reinforce the belief that the “problem” exists squarely within the individual — a problem of “internal barriers” — and so it is the individual’s responsibility to “fix” themselves.

“This of course misses the fact that women’s ‘internal barriers’ often exist because of external barriers — exposure to subtly biased language, stereotypes, and discriminatory treatment that lead women and other marginalised group members to question their suitability for a job and thus their tendency to pursue that opportunity.”

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Three quarters of women felt they needed to fit the skills profile of a job specification by 70% or more, and half (51%) by 80% or more, before applying for any job.

“It is telling that the most common barrier to applying for a job, in general, was the belief that they didn’t have the right skillset,” said Begeny.

“Women were far more likely to recognise that they had the relevant skills to pursue this job when it was described using gender-inclusive language — again illustrating how subtle shifts in language can drastically change perceptions of women’s fit and suitability for traditionally male-dominated roles.”

Over half (55%) of women are considering a new career as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the research found.

The study found that businesses can be more inclusive by improving the language used in job adverts by removing latent gendered phraseology and construction in the language used and including key skillset descriptors.

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