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Gendered language in Job Ads

Gendered language in Job Ads

[updated 2021 & 2022]

We don't hire enough women in Engineering and Computer Science faculties.  It's a peer-reviewed fact.

And, yet, hiring committees continue to refuse to use the same rigour and critical thinking in finding a new colleague that they demand in their every-day research.  Where's the evidence that your ad-hoc, "mmmm.... feels good" job ad works?

Best practice, workable solutions for dealing with this exist, and they've been examined by a multitude of people, including within the Canadian context (WWest summary on hiring committees; archive).  An in-depth examination can be found in Iris Bohnet's book, "What Works" (my review, video recap of research by Dr. Bohnet)  One of my take-aways from the book is that we must get to a minimum 30% ratio as quickly as possible to make progressive and long-lasting change.

Each hiring exercise we go through in our faculty is an opportunity to get closer to that 30%.   The first thing to do is to focus the job ad: the words and the venues.  Here, I'm focusing on the first part.

The words we use in the job ad matter (video), just like they matter when companies like Coca Cola make the billion dollar decisions to attract more clients by changing the name of their products ("Diet" Coke to Coke "Zero").  Academic job ads are not immune to this. Take a look at most of them and they use words like "decisive", "independent", "active", "strong."  These are gendered words (WWest PDF; archive). They're keyed for men to respond positively to.  They have a negative outcome on women applying for jobs.

In 2017 I brought up these issues as we debated, yet again, what to do about "women not applying for professor jobs" in our engineering and computer science department.  I suggested that we reword the job ad and to use professional tools and evidence-based best practices to do so.  Why?  Because rewording it will not significantly reduce the number of men applying.  Stastically-speaking, men don't care what the job requirements or wording is.  They'll still apply.  However, the effect of the wording on women is profound.  Male-gendered wording is known to reduce the number of female applicants.  So, coding your job ad with female-gendered words will have no significant downside.  With that in mind, I used two automated word analysis tools to do most of the heavy-lifting in the rewrite:

  1. Free & Simple Gendered word decoder:
  2. The more capable "wizard"

Textio no longer runs the free trial I used but Kat Matfield's site is still up. (Journal article by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay) It looks up words in your job ad to see if they're known to be male gendered.   Here is a comparison between the old version and the new version:

The major updating only took a few hours using Kat Matfield's site and Textio. It's not hard to do. I'd also recommend  getting (1) subscription and (2) a consultant on personnel, recruitment and language to help.

So, if your hiring committee is putting together the job ad for this year's hiring cycle, ask yourselves if you're starting off on the wrong foot.  Did you apply the same rigour to your job ad that you did in your last journal paper?  If your job ad is a rewarmed version of the same job ad that got you hired 20 years ago then there's something wrong.  Fix it.

Follow-up Sept 2022

In the years since I posted this, many of our department's job ads have reverted to the older form and we have failed to meet our gender hiring goals.  Worse, we went through a massive hiring spree and the department's gender split is likely to remain bad for at least the next ten, maybe twenty years.  Simply changing wording isn't enough.  Enlightened leadership and active guidance for our hiring committees is needed but is currently absent.


Post updated Oct 2021 and Sept 2022 to fix broken links.

James Andrew Smith is an associate professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department in York University's Lassonde School.  He lives in Toronto, Canada.  While on sabbatical in 2018-19 with his wife and kids he lived in Strasbourg, France and taught at the INSA Strasbourg and Hochschule Karlsruhe and wrote about his personal and professional perspectives.  He's on Twitter a lot.