A recent study suggests that the language in employment advertisements can indicate whether the available job is traditionally filled by men or women. The study, conducted by researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Princeton University, and the University of Waterloo, took a look at more than 4,000 employment ads and examined each description, searching for connotative words typically associated with one gender.
For example, ads that used powerful words like “competitive” or “dominant” suggested a male opening, whereas descriptions that included words like “caring” or “compassionate” indicated a female opening. The research team dissected these language clues and used them to develop their own employment ads for identical jobs, making one of the postings masculine and one feminine. Subjects were then asked to rate the jobs. Results show a clear relation between the subjects’ gender and the descriptions they were most attracted to.
One example of the language difference is seen in an advertisement for a registered nurse. The posting “for men” read, “We are determined to deliver superior medical treatment tailored to each individual patient,” and the posting “for women” read, “We are committed to providing top quality health care that is sympathetic to the needs of our patients.” Female subjects were overwhelmingly drawn to the feminine description and male subjects were attracted to the masculine description. The researchers reported that no one in the study was conscious of the influence of gender in which ad they were attracted to.
Justin Friesen, a University of Waterloo graduate student, co-authored the study:
We found these wording differences affected the job’s appeal independent of the type of job it was. When we used more masculine wording, the traditionally female-dominated jobs became more appealing to men. Using more feminine wording made the traditionally male-dominated jobs more appealing to women.
None of the researchers suggested that employers gender their want ads purposefully, but this study could, perhaps, inform why we see such clear gender stratification in the job market. Men belong in construction, manufacturing and finance jobs because they are “competitive” or “fast-paced,” while women belong in nursing or childcare, the more nurturing professions. If an advertisement uses gendered language, even if it’s unintentional, the company will attract more applicants who respond to those connotative words, which perpetuates a gender-divided workforce.
This study should serve as a sign to companies that they should pay more attention to the wording of their advertisements —even if the company is not looking for a certain gender in their applicants, they may be unintentionally implying that only men or only women are more suited for the available position. At the same time, this study is descriptive, not prescriptive, so it’s hard to say how the companies can remove the gender bias in the advertisements. With more thorough research into the type of language that attracts each gender, perhaps employers can alternate words and diversify the language in their employment ads to become more neutral and inclusive of both genders.
(Photo Kevin H.)