The Problem with Job Ads

How biases in job ads can deter highly qualified women

In the world of HR, questions are being asked about the neutrality of job ads. Organisations claim their hiring processes are fair, but just how far is this the case? An increasing volume of research is uncovering the nature and extent of bias against women in job ads alone. In a recent article entitled When Job Ads Turn You Down: How Requirements in Job Ads May Stop Instead of Attract Highly Qualified Women, authors Wille and Derous identify two features of job ads that deter qualified female applicants.

The first feature is the requirement for certain personality traits for which women tend to have negative meta-stereotypes. For example, the job ad may stipulate that ‘you are calm and not nervous’ or ask for ’emotional stability’. Stereotypes of woman lacking the required attributes may mean that women discount themselves. Since job ads are such an early part of the job search process, it’s easy for prospective applicants to be deterred and simply move on to the next ad.

The second off-putting feature of job ads is when requirements for personality traits are formulated using adjectives rather than verbs. Here, the formulation makes it sound as if a person is being described, rather than the behaviours the organisation wishes them to demonstrate. For example a job ad might make the mistake of saying, “The organisation expects calm workers”, rather the improved formulation, “The organisation expects you to keep calm in stressful situations”. Wille and Derous suggest that this may put off women because of the way that this choice of wording affects their impression of the recruiter themselves: “women job seekers may get the impression that recruiters will base their assessment on their stereotypes about women’s presumed nature (what they are) rather than their behaviour (how they might behave)”.

Our advice is to be aware of the kind of impression a job ad is making on you, from when you first see the job link to the moment you finish reading the advertisement. Be aware of any language the recruiter is using that might be putting you off the role, and don’t let the ad’s wording put you off applying altogether. In some cases, the wording may be representative of discriminatory practices within the hiring process or organisation itself, but remember that the job ad alone does not provide enough evidence to confirm this. If you are uncertain about the organisation or culture to which you are applying, you might want to ask questions about diversity initiatives they run, the ratio of female to male board members, or to try to meet with women who work there to hear their own perspectives. Above all, as much as your job search process is a more or less urgent bid to get a new job, don’t dismiss or accept a new job at first sight: try to develop a rounded picture of a prospective role or employer before making any commitments, especially when it comes to not putting yourself forward at all.