Words Have Power: Avoiding Exclusionary Job Advertisements

May 11, 2020

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

Most of us have scrolled the internet, scoured Craigslist and Kijiji, pored over classifieds to find a job, and many of us have scanned job descriptions in advertisements and felt that we would never be able to meet all of their expectations. But it turns out that job advertisements, when not crafted carefully, can deter women from applying for certain jobs simply by using the wrong language, whether or not the advertisers realize it. Now more than ever, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing how our workplaces look and operate (and with many people possibly not returning to offices outside of their homes), the work that goes into job advertisements needs to shift to more inclusive language. Workplaces that are re-hiring after mass layoffs due to the pandemic have a unique opportunity to focus on inclusive language and create more diverse work landscapes.

Source: SFU

WWEST Chair Dr. Lesley Shannon covered this topic in her article “Want to Encourage Gender Diversity? Choose your words WISEly” in Computing Research News in 2016. She writes that there are many contributing factors as to why women are not more represented in computer science and engineering, but that one of the key challenges is “how computing degrees and careers are perceived by society at large” and goes on to write “we have to think about how we describe computing degrees to potential students, as well as to their parents and teachers.” And this goes for job advertisements as well.

A little linguistics lesson: English contains gendered language, with the obvious examples of the words “he” and “she,” but there is evidence indicating that gender-exclusive language can be just that – exclusive. But, when using gender-inclusive language {“he or she”} or gender-neutral language (“they”), women and men can both feel more included. There are many words in the English language that Dr. Shannon writes have “a perceived gender based on gender stereotypes: how you use these words can subtly signal to your audience who does (and does not) fit in.” These words can be separated into two groups: communal, which are perceived to be more “feminine” (words such as considerate, polite, responsible, understanding) and agentic, which are perceived to be more “masculine” (words such as ambitious, analytical, logical, self-sufficient). Here is an example of a job advertisement which uses more agentic language:

When women and others who do not identify as masculine see these words, they may feel that they are not qualified to apply for that job and they may not be able to relate to the job description. This can lead to them feeling excluded from job opportunities and academic programs. Conversely, advertisements that use more communal language can increase a woman’s interest in applying for that job, but it does not negatively impact a man’s interest in applying. The best job descriptions have a mix of agentic and communal words so they appeal to everybody.

Take a look at these word clouds for agentic and communal language:

So, how can job descriptions be improved so they feel more inclusive? Focus on the “why” versus the “what.” For example, Dr. Shannon writes that a job description for a computer engineer “could explain that using technology to solve interesting problems that help society (e.g. advances in medical technology) is much more inspiring.” If we advertise something like engineering as the "what" (fast cars, sleek robots, etc.), we won't attract folks like women to engineering. But we can attract them if we talk about the why (helping people, safer transportation, improving medical treatment, robots to help the elderly, etc.). If language is more inclusive to those who might normally be attracted to communal language, those who might be attracted to agentic language will also be drawn to a job description that includes the “why” instead of the “what:”

Here are examples of descriptions of academic programs that focus on the “what” versus the “why:”


Additionally, inclusive visuals must be used to make a more even playing field for those interested in academic programs or applying to work at an organization. Images that include scientists who are only men, for example, can convey to the interested applicant that there is only room for men in a program or organization.  It is better for these images to show a variety of genders, skin colours, ages, abilities, and clothing options. Taking these steps will help organizations to be more welcoming to diversity, which only strengthens their workforce and invites more creativity. As we navigate a new century and ongoing changes to work landscapes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the perfect time for hiring managers to pay more attention and make these changes.

For more examples of agentic and communal language, see our White Paper. To read Dr. Shannon’s full article in Computing Research News, click here.