Here’s How Your Word Choices Could Affect Hiring Gender-Diverse Talent

July 31, 2019

Currently, over 50,000 job descriptions on LinkedIn include the word “aggressive.” Whether to highlight sales goals, describe the workplace, or suggest the kind of attributes they’re looking for in a candidate. 

New research from LinkedIn shows that using “aggressive” could discourage almost half of women from applying to your job. That’s right, language matters and in our new global Language Matters Gender Diversity report, we’re diving into just how much of an impact words have on your hiring and employee engagement strategies.

Earlier this year, we released the Global Gender Insights report to dissect the behavioral differences in how men and women find jobs. To continue the conversation, the Language Matters Gender Diversity report highlights how men and women react differently to language used both in the hiring process and in the workplace, and what this means for recruiters, HR professionals, and business leaders. 

LinkedIn conducted global research by surveying over 12,000 employees, 3,000 employers, analyzing billions of data points created by more than 630 million members on LinkedIn, and looking at how international media talks about key global leaders. The report includes actionable tips for companies looking to build more gender-diverse teams as well as expert insight from Professor Rosie Campbell, director at the renowned Gender Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.

Having a gender-diverse pipeline and employee-base is hugely important when creating workplaces that are successful, innovative, and inclusive and an organization that truly meets business needs. We’ve found that language can be a key factor in creating a company culture that cultivates inclusion and belonging across every aspect of the workplace. Let’s dive in. 

Words impact every stage of the hiring process

Language selection impacts every part of the hiring process — both in how companies describe themselves and the tone that they set with candidates. Getting word choice right can influence a company’s ability to attract a gender-balanced workforce.

LinkedIn research shows that women are 16% less likely to apply to a job after viewing it than men. Many factors contribute, including language. Our latest research shows that when words like “aggressive” are used in a job description to describe a company’s workplace, 44% of women (and 33% of men) would be discouraged from applying. A quarter of women would be discouraged from working somewhere described as “demanding.” Check words like these at the door.

And in the interview process, the words used to describe the characteristics of an ideal candidate can have a lasting impression on both men and women.  

Our research shows that both men and women favor the same top three words to describe themselves in a job interview — “hard-working,” “good at my job,” and “confident.” But there are important nuances as well. We found that women are 40% more likely than men to want to be perceived in a job interview as “qualified”, “smart,” and “competent.”

Women also prioritize terms that relate more to their character; specifically, “likeable” and “supportive” were cited by women more than men. While some would say that’s perpetuating a stereotype, we see this as an opportunity to balance your typical performance-based candidate requirements with more character-based terms to ensure you’re attracting a more gender-balanced pipeline. 

Both men and women believe soft skills are gendered — in their favor

There's more to filling a role than checking off boxes on a list of technical skills. 92% of hiring managers feel that soft skills matter as much, if not more than hard skills. With that said, soft skills are often perceived differently by men and women.

According to the findings, there appears to be a disparity between how men and women perceive soft skills. Women tend to believe that soft skills are more associated with the female gender (60% of the surveyed). Meanwhile, a majority of men see soft skills as being a more male-gendered term.  

So when it comes to screening candidates for their soft skills, consider including those soft skills by using more specific traits for your ideal candidate, and include those early on in your job descriptions and marketing materials. Also, having a standard set of interview questions, through tools such as LinkedIn’s Interview Question Generator, can help companies compare evaluations and determine a fit, no matter the gender. 

Men and women want to be seen as ambitious and powerful, but media says otherwise

Both women and men respond very positively to descriptors such as “powerful” and “confident” — with about 30% of both men and women indicating they would feel uplifted if colleagues described them as “powerful."  

However, there are stark differences in how the media ascribes traits of professional ambition to men and women. We took a look at online articles from 25 of the most highly-viewed publications across the globe to see how men and women public figures were described. Despite women and men equally seeing themselves as powerful, the media uses the word “powerful” nearly six times more in connection with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook compared to Sheryl Sandberg, Mark’s female counterpart and COO of Facebook. We saw a similar trend across several other pairings of male and female leaders.

Word choice can have a big impact on how empowered employees feel in the workplace — but data shows there’s still a disparity between how genders are depicted and how they think of themselves. How you describe your leaders to employees, for example, becomes increasingly more important as you consider how men and women view themselves in your organization. 

Different benefits appeal to different genders — know which to highlight

When it comes to benefits, men and women prioritize the same top four areas: salary, flexible hours, annual leave, and medical coverage. Flexible hours has become an important consideration for both genders (ranked in the top five by 50% of men and 60% of women).  

The difference is in the role that workplace culture plays in the decision to seek out or apply for a role. We found that women actively seek out positions that promote flexible working hours (60%), working from home (30%), and additional medical benefits (45%). 

  • Screenshot of bar graph from LinkedIn’s Language Matters Report  Title: The top 4 work benefits men & women look for:  Salary: 75% men, 79% women Flexible work hours: 49% men, 59% women Annual leave: 50% men, 53% women Medical/dental coverage: 35% men, 45% women

Think about how your LinkedIn Career Pages or company websites emphasize the benefits that you can offer as an employer (such as learning, culture, or additional benefits). If it exists, be sure to highlight that work-life balance is part of your company ethos. 

The data and trends that inform and shape how to address diversity challenges have quickly become table-stakes for companies, worldwide. With culture and diversity now one of the top 5 areas for HR analytics, leaders are looking more and more to insights to guide talent strategies.  

To help further support companies in this journey to more gender-balanced teams, we’ve rolled out a set of new diversity solutions into our talent products to help you plan for, hire, and develop talent. LinkedIn Recruiter, for example, shows you how your InMail messages perform by gender so you can monitor who you reach out to and who responds, and LinkedIn Talent Insights gives you a better understanding of the gender breakdown by region, industry, skill, etc. to further target your outreach. 

Read more about the Language Matters report here.

How has language in the workplace impacted your career, or the hiring process in your place of work? Share your experiences using #LanguageMatters. 

*Gender identity isn’t binary and we recognize that some LinkedIn members identify beyond the traditional gender constructs of ‘male’ and ‘female’. However, LinkedIn gender data —which has been used to inform substantial portions of this report — is inferred on the basis of first name and currently does not account for other gender identities. As members begin to self-report gender, we are looking forward to sharing more inclusive gender data.

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