Women account for only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 company CEOs. And although theories abound as to why the number remains stubbornly low, a new study has gotten to a possible, if surprising, root cause: job ads worded in such a way as to seem “male-sounding,” thus discouraging women to apply from the start.
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“I was surprised that such a small difference in the wording has a significant impact on women's willingness to apply,” lead researcher Claudia Peus, of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), tells Yahoo Shine.
For the study, which was presented this week at a business-leader conference in Munich, the scientists showed fictional employment ads, including those for management training programs, to 260 men and women. The women were less inclined to respond to that ads included the words “determined,” “assertive,” “aggressive,” “independent” and “analytical" because those words are linked to male stereotypes. But they were drawn to those with descriptors such as “dedicated,” “responsible,” “conscientious,” and “sociable.” The men, meanwhile, responded to job ads regardless of the wording.
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That reality — of women often selling themselves short when it comes to setting career goals — has been echoed again and again at this week's Women in the World Summit, featuring high-achievers from Hillary Clinton to Meryl Streep discussing ways in which to force global change for women and girls. "These attitudes still persist…we need to talk about them," Clinton told the crowd on Thursday when speaking about gender bias for professional women. "The double standard is alive and well.”
The study's researcher, Peus, notes in press material about the findings that "A carefully formulated job posting is essential to get the best choice of personnel. In most cases, it doesn't make sense to simply leave out all of the male-sounding phrases. But without a profile featuring at least balanced wording, organizations are robbing themselves of the chance of attracting good female applicants. And that's because the stereotypes endure almost unchanged in spite of all of the societal transformation we have experienced."
She tells Yahoo Shine that, while women do need to start seeing themselves as more capable when searching for a job, companies need to take responsibility, too. “I think the problem has to be addressed from both ends,” she says. “Encouraging women is important but not sufficient. Checking how ads are written is an easy way for organizations to attract more women applicants.”
Kathy Caprino, a women's career and executive coach in New York who was not surprised by the study's findings, has another take on the situation. "I'd recommend that women don't go for jobs that are advertised with these words, because this type of phrasing in and of itself reflects a misguided understanding by the hiring company of what true, quality leadership and success are and constitute," she tells Yahoo Shine. "A job that's pitched as needing 'aggressive' behavior is the wrong job for most people, men or women. It's not 'aggression' that's necessary to succeed; it's assertiveness, confidence, great communication skills, relationship-building, self-mastery, and more."
On that note, two related studies presented in Munich illustrate the intersection between leadership skills and the stubborn power of gender stereotypes. In one, done in conjunction with a team from New York University, a group of 600 men and women were surveyed regarding ideal leaders. While most agreed that both men and women were equally competent and productive on a fundamental level, most rated men’s leadership skills more highly. And the women, perhaps unsurprisingly, perceived themselves and other women to be less capable leaders than how the men saw themselves.
The findings of the other study, though, were more encouraging: For it, the scientists showed more than 500 test subjects videos or images of a leader delivering bad business news to employees. Those who expressed anger inspired the least amount of confidence and approval, whereas those who showed sadness brought out more feelings of loyalty.
“A tough tone of voice equals authority — that’s just not true,” notes lead researcher Isabell M. Welpe, also of TUM. “The position of power held by leaders who take their anger out on their staff may indeed be acknowledged. But it doesn’t earn them lasting loyalty — on the contrary, they risk being betrayed at the next opportunity.”