How to Make Job Descriptions Female-Friendly

GovFem_FinalIf you’ve read The Confidence Code or Lean In, you might recall this often-cited statistic from a Hewlett-Packard survey:

Women apply for jobs only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the position. Men apply for the same jobs when they feel they meet only 60 percent of the job requirements.

Why? A Forbes article says it has to do with confidence. Men feel like they can accomplish a job with 60% of the necessary qualifications, while women are less sure. A separate article by the Harvard Business Review disagreed that it was a confidence issue. Instead, it hypothesized that women felt they were unlikely to be hired for a job for which they weren’t 100% qualified, and therefore they did not make an assumed futile attempt to apply.

From personal experience, I think the latter argument is more likely. But whatever the cause, the fact remains: Women respond to job advertisements differently.

That’s something to keep in mind when you write your next call for applications. Because you work in government, you can’t write ‘WOMEN PLEASE APPLY!’ at the top of your advert. However, you can encourage more women with a wider range of skill sets to apply. Here’s six tips to revamp your job descriptions and attract more female applicants:

1. Focus on skills, not technology. Within the tech sector specifically, it’s easy to create a very niche job description that requests experience with specific coding languages, platforms, etc. These descriptions will narrow your applicant pool, specifically deterring women who may not have experience with each of those technologies. Yet, Geek Feminism points out that a highly skilled professional–someone who is well-educated, dedicated, a quick learner, and adaptable–will be able to pick up a new technology with relative ease. Focus on those skills in your job description to ensure you continue to attract high-caliber candidates, without deterring women.

2. Highlight training opportunities. Showcasing learning opportunities, like formal training and mentorship programs, achieves two goals. It implies that you are willing to hire candidates who do not meet every single listed job qualification. It also shows a commitment to helping employees accrue skills on the job. Both of these messages can help alleviate concerns of under-qualification.

3. Avoid superlative terms. Asking for “experts”, candidates who are “off the charts”, or “ninjas” implies that you are looking for someone at the very top of their field. However, using these phrases may deter applicants who recognize that they are advanced in their skills–even the best among their peers–but not necessarily the most experienced in their field. Phrases such as “must be highly competent” are more likely to attract a diversity of candidates.

4. Maintain gender balance. It’s easy to write this line without thinking: “The qualified candidate will be dedicated. He will be willing to work extend hours…” But for every reference to your male qualified candidate, make sure you use a feminine pronoun elsewhere. Women are more likely to respond to gender-neutral or gender-balanced job advertisements, rather than those that assume the successful applicant will be a “he”.

5. Be conscience of gender-themed words. A study of 4,000 job descriptions and potential applicants found that only using masculine-themed words such as active, competitive, dominate, decisive, and objective made job descriptions less appealing to women, compared to descriptions that also used feminine-themed words such as community, dependable, responsible, and committed. Many of these words are synonyms and can be interchanged. By using a mixture of both, you create an image of a balanced culture open to both genders.

6. Set clear time expectations. Of course, it’s important to be upfront about the time-commitment you expect from your employees. But some phrases imply greater expectations, particularly to social events, than others. One example from the CEO of Women Who Code is the line “We work hard and play hard.” This phrase is often thrown in to highlight a fun company culture, but it also implies that employees are expected to spend time outside of working hours with their coworkers. For women who are primary caregivers, this can be a deterrent to applying. Be clear about the time commitment you expect, and what additional demands on employees’ time might be.

Do you have any other ideas to improve job descriptions and attract more qualified women to government jobs? Let us know in the comments below!


This article was originally posted in December 2014.

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Mark Hammer

Simply, one of the best posts I’ve seen all year. Love it.

I don’t think many people are aware of the subtext of their job posters. Some very sage advice included in your recommendations. Nice work!

Kay Hart

Just as professionals are able to pick up new technology quickly, they are also able to pick up specific government programs quickly. Job descriptions that include references to experience in particular programs limit applicants who could bring high level skills and outside perspective and create an insider atmosphere where “same old, same old” is repeated over and over.

Rhonda Perozzo

Loved this article! Thanks for sharing. As a women in a Tech job, I can attest that all the requirements of different programming languages and/or different platforms that you “should” be familiar with can be quite deterring! Being a quick-learner and well-educated individual with the ability to pick up new technology is one of my traits! I have been deterred from positions I would have more than likely excelled at… all due to the many “requirements” listed.

Robert L Davis

I was having a discussion with some colleagues yesterday about why some IT jobs include in the description “must be able to lift 50 pounds” in them. I had just assumed it was a stock description some HR person added to every job posting. One of them suggested that it may be a way to filter out female applicants. I had never even thought of that possibility until he said it. What are your thoughts? Would this requirement cause women to not apply?

Profile Photo Linda Taylor

The “must be able to lift 50 pounds” requirement also filters out applicants with physical disabilities. While the requirement might be valid for a small business, it should not be used for a large organization and may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Malcolm Patterson

When monitors were bulky and heavy, it required considerable strength to lift and carry them. If the offered job entailed moving workstations, such a requirement would make perfect sense (twenty years ago). It was a matter of safety for the employee and her co-workers (not to mention potential damage to expensive equipment). Today, virtually no workstation or desktop monitor requires such strength, though large organizations will still have the occasional need to move heavy workgroup printers and ever-larger flat screens. It was much easier to add a new requirement that has a basis than to recognize that an old one has outlived its usefulness.