A new study from Openreach exploring latent bias in job adverts has shown how language can shape workforce diversity.
The company analysed the language barriers that impact female job applicants and found that it plays a fundamental role in the recruitment process, with women 50% less likely to consider roles that have a coded gender bias.
However, when presented with a gender-inclusive advert as part of the study, women’s interest in the role increased by more than 200%, with 60% stating this was because of the way it was written.
The company hopes its new linguistic approach will increase diversity and help it meet a commitment to recruit a minimum of 20% of females into new roles this year – more than ten times historic levels.
As part of the diversity research, Openreach took a detailed look at the language it used across its recruitment channels, working with linguistic specialists Linguistic Landscapes and gender bias expert Dr Chris Begeny from Exeter University.
The team created a new, consciously unbiased job description for the company’s 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.
The new wording was tested against the original advert with 2000 women of working age in the UK. The findings showed that 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.
Despite four in five (80%) women admitting they would not consider working in engineering, more than half (56%) were interested in the engineering job role once it had been reimagined and the word ‘engineer’ had been removed.
This was supported by the latent stereotyping identified for similar industries, with a quarter (24%) of women still feeling that certain roles are better suited to men.
Dr Begeny 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.”
He added: “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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The research also shows that three-quarters of respondents (75%) 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.
Dr Begeny continued: “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. 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.’”