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The best man for the job? Recruitment ads plagued by unconscious gender bias says study

Employers and recruiters across the UK are putting their diversity at risk by unconsciously using gender-biased language in job adverts, according to the largest ever study on the language of UK recruitment.

Company Profile

Totaljobs

  • Largest ever study of UK job adverts highlights widespread use of ‘gender-coded language'  
  • Male bias worsens in search for senior, board-level roles  
  • Totaljobs launch language decoder to help employers avoid words that put off candidates on basis of their gender

Employers and recruiters across the UK are putting their diversity at risk by unconsciously using gender-biased language in job adverts, according to the largest ever study on the language of UK recruitment.  

Released today by leading job board totaljobs, the study reviewed 76,000 UK jobs adverts over a six-week period and highlighted how employers unwittingly bias their hunt for talent by using gender-biased language in job descriptions. Totaljobs’ analysis found 478,175 female and male biased words used throughout the job ads, or an average of 6 gender-coded words per advert.

The findings have been released to launch the totaljobs Gender Bias Decoder, a tool allowing both employees and employers to scan documents such as CVs, job descriptions and even emails for any unintended bias. With employers and recruiters of all shapes and sizes committed to promoting diversity, it’s hoped the initiative will allow businesses to get a head start in tackling a possible gender imbalance before Gender Pay Gap reporting is implemented in April 2018.

North American research from The University of Waterloo and Duke University previously identified a list of terms that were systematically male and female gender-coded, such as those associated with gender stereotypes, and proved their impact on the American recruitment landscape. Using these terms totaljobs analysed 76,929 job adverts over a six week period to assess their use and prevalence within the UK recruitment sector

Most commonly used male-biased words in UK job descriptions

  • Lead – 70,539 mentions
  • Analyse – 35,339 mentions
  • Competitive – 23,079 mentions
  • Active – 20,041 mentions
  • Confident – 13,841 mentions 

Most commonly used female-biased words in UK job descriptions

  • Support – 83,095 mentions
  • Responsible – 64,909 mentions
  • Understanding – 29,638 mentions
  • Dependable – 16,979 mentions
  • Committed – 13,129 mentions

The job description that used the most male-coded words (67) in its description was a ‘Senior Revenue Manager’ whilst the most female-biased job advert was for a 'Residential Worker' (46) followed closely by 'Nursery Nurse' (44 mentions).

 Double-glazing the glass ceiling?

The research also found that job descriptions for senior positions were more likely to have an unconscious male-bias.

For example, job ads looking for positions including the title 'Director' and ‘Partner’ showed a 22% skew towards using male-biased language.

  • Head – 1,013 jobs (50% male bias / 36% female bias)
  • Director – 582 jobs (55% male bias / 32% female bias)
  • Partner – 320 jobs (52% male bias / 34% female bias)
  • Chief – 45 jobs (64% male bias / 36% female bias) 

The data also suggests gender bias sets in at a relatively junior level. Whilst roles including 'senior' & 'junior' both skew slightly towards male-biased language (48% / 39%), job titles that include the phrase 'assistant' lean more towards female-biased language (28% / 58%).

Looking at individual industries, consulting (68%), sales (63%) and IT (52%) are the sectors most likely to bias adverts for 'senior' roles with male-coded language. Social care is the sector most likely to use female-biased language in its efforts to fill senior vacancies. 

The Men of Science

When looking at individual sectors, certain industries are more prone to biasing their search for candidates and undermining their efforts to champion diversity as a result.  For example, in spite of a range of STEM initiatives designed to get more women into roles in science, roles in the sector are still the most likely to use male-coded language according the 677 job descriptions the study analysed. 62% of adverts for roles in science used male-biased language, compared to just 28% that used female.

By contrast, social care was the sector most likely to use female-coded language when the 1,687 jobs from this sector were analysed, closely followed by vacancies in the sport & fitness sector. Other industries that showed particular bias include:

  • Education – 1,772 jobs (67% female bias / 25% male bias)
  • Customer Service – 3,091 jobs (50% female bias / 35% male bias)
  • Marketing – 1,947 jobs (52% male bias / 33% female bias)

Tech leading the way in the fight for parity

Perhaps surprisingly, IT jobs came the closest to providing equality even if only through even amounts of gender bias. Of the 13,000 IT jobs looked at as part of the study, 12% used gender neutral language and male and female gender bias occurred equally with a 44% / 44% split.

David Clift, HR Director at totaljobs comments:

'Today we release one of the most comprehensive studies of the language of recruitment ever carried out in the UK. Employers have taken great strides in driving greater opportunities for employees but these findings showcase exactly how much further we have to go to promote diversity and equal opportunity across every sector of the UK economy.

It is clear that gender stereotypes in relation to certain roles are so entrenched, the market needs to take action to address this. Only by addressing the unconscious bias that still exists at the very start of a candidate search, can we move towards truly diverse workforces and make inroads in tacking major challenges like the Gender Pay Gap. We hope both recruiters embrace the new Gender Bias Decoder and take the opportunity to do the ground work to help them avoid perpetuating the issues that April's new legislation will seek to address.'

Candidates and employers can check their documents for unconscious bias by using the totaljobs Gender Bias Decoder which can be found at: https://www.totaljobs.com/insidejob/gender-bias-decoder/