Are Your Job Posts Hurting Your Bottom Line?

Are Your Job Posts Hurting Your Bottom Line?

Rasmus Busk Hyllemose
8 min read


We Asked Develop Diverse to Find Out

Let us not dance around this topic anymore. Because we can no longer turn the other cheek. Inclusive language in job posts is here to stay and you need to know why. In the last ten years, there has rarely been a HR conference that didn’t put diversity and inclusion high on the agenda. And still, here is one statistic that immediately showcase the difficulty leaders face when trying to create a more diverse workforce:

While 98% of companies say they have invested in diversity programmes, most companies still struggle to attract and retain diverse employees. This highlights that it's still a way to go from setting diversity on the agenda to getting to the results we want.

As a recruitment platform, we wanted to get a better understanding of this issue.

According to both academic and commercial research, language used by recruiters, the management and the employees themselves is one of the biggest factors when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. It can act as a barrier and make people feel like they don’t belong in a team. Or in contrast, if used mindfully, it can ensure an inclusive workplace and inclusive attitudes, boosting morale and creativity. This should by itself be a strong argument for why you should start focusing on doing inclusive language in job posts.

Jenifer Clausell-Tormos, CEO & Founder of Develop Diverse, explained why spell-checking for gender bias in your job ads is must at TED x OdenseWomen. In addition, according to the 2018 Talent Board benchmark research, 69% of North American employers use diversity and culture marketing content to attract candidates. 74% percent of EMEA employers and 86% of APAC employers are doing the same. And yet, North American candidates found diversity and culture information valuable a mere 20% of the time.

This is why at The Hub, we collaborated with Develop Diverse, a Danish startup who have developed a web application to make recruitment and corporate communication more inclusive and therefore more welcoming to all talent available and employees. Develop Diverse ran their language analysis over 15,000 job descriptions in the Nordics to see if we could gain any insights on communication from the recruitment side.

As you’ll see, the results are surprising. But first, a quick reminder:

Why We Can’t Afford to Miss Out on a Diverse Talent Pool

The most famous paper on diversity and company performance is undoubtedly the McKinsey Diversity Matters study, which revealed the following insights:

  • Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median.
  • A culturally diverse company increases customer satisfaction through better representation.
  • A 15% increase in diverse representation starts boosting work satisfaction levels for minority workers.

And yet, even with all these obvious benefits, the fact remains: the recipe to build a diverse workforce is still incomplete, which begs the question:

Why Does Language Matter?

Gender coded language in job ads

We spoke with Line Pfeiffer Jørgensen Holter, a business psychologist with extensive knowledge about leadership and stereotypes, about why language matters:

"Our language is not neutral. It's not a neutral reflection of the world around us. Instead, language not only creates our understanding of the world we live in but also forms our world. And the way we understand the world and our position in the world forms our actions. The words we choose create opportunities and limitations to our own and others' behavior. Words open doors and close doors. In that sense, the language is never "for free".

This goes for all aspects of our lives. It is true for our business life, and it certainly also applies when we write job descriptions and job posts. So be mindful of your language. Think about what kind of "worldview" do you want to create. What kind of opportunities do you want to create? Which limitations do you seek to avoid? What kind of applicants do you want to attract? And how do you want your potential candidates to be able to act?

Now, here is a thing to keep in mind: Language in job posts matters because they create assumptions about your company culture and leadership style. The reason is because of a cognitive, or mental, short cut. Our brains love to save energy. We can save energy if we can create understanding, and make up our minds, about new and unknown things quickly. Therefore, we tend to conclude from one context to another. If your job post is full of stereotyped, biased, and non-inclusive language, potential candidates will likely assume that's also true for your company culture and leadership style. This, of course, might be true. But if not, what a shame it would be potentially to exclude qualified candidates by not emphasizing on inclusive language in your job posts." Line tells us.

Building your culture and your brand

Diversity and inclusion in recruiting

When building your company culture and brand, Line points out:"In a study about attracting, engaging, developing and retaining female millennials, PwC found that 86% of female millennials and 74% of male millennials identified an employer's policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion as important when deciding whether or not to work for an employer (source: "The female millennial: a new era of talent", PwC, 2015).

As a start-up, now is when you build the foundation of your company culture and your company brand. If you can attract a diverse workforce, the chances are that you will create an open and inclusive company culture. In turn, this will determine your brand in the long run. Imagine if your company could become part of that top quartile for gender diversity, which are 15% more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median!" Line states.

The Develop Diverse Study

Inclusive language in job posts

Keeping all these numbers and insights in mind, we at the Hub, as a leading growth and recruitment platform for startups, we asked ourselves the question: How inclusive is the communication we use in our own startup ecosystem?

To answer this, we analyzed anonymized job posts from the cross-Nordics region including the countries Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Northern Ireland.

The Develop Diverse web app is built to detect non-inclusive language in job posts and proposes inclusive alternatives. Currently, it detects three kinds of stereotypes: gender, age and ethnicity and it was used to analyze 15.386 job posts published at The Hub.

We ran each country's set of ads through the Develop Diverse algorithm that gave us results based on:

  • Overall inclusivity score of the ad
  • Non-inclusive phrases in the ad (sorted by stereotype category)
  • Statistics about the non-inclusive language in the ad (percentage of stereotypical phrases (per category), total amount of phrases, scores, etc.)

As each ad has multiple labels, we could also check these statistics per country, seniority and per department (tech, sales, design etc) and correlate those with each other. This gave us insight into pinpointing where the possible problematic areas would be. Before moving on to the key results, keep in mind that according to Develop Diverse, a mere 0.6% of non-inclusive wording in the number of words can change whether the candidate will apply to your post or not.

Key Result 1: Male Stereotypes in Language Across All Regions

The job posts include phrases that appeal more to male readers by 2.3%, for instance with words such as:

  • Strong (found in over 6000+ descriptions), such as in strong skills
  • Manage (3000+), e.g manage projects or tasks
  • Drive (3000), like in possessing a strong drive

The number was also higher for more executive positions, increasing by 0.5%. Consistent with research, female stereotypic language remained used at the same frequency for staff and management positions.This trend was clear across all countries and departments, suggesting that the language we use to attract talent to startup jobs would be more appealing to men rather than women.

Key Result 2: Female Stereotypes in Language Exist Mostly Based on Department

This was particularly evident in positions relating to design or customer support. The bias towards feminine phrasing was at a 0.7 - 1% there, but here are three examples of female stereotypic phrases found everywhere:

  • Help (found in over 7000+ descriptions) instead of contribute to or support
  • Love ( 3000+), e.g. in love to serve customers
  • Passion ( 2000+)

Key Result 3: Age Stereotypes in Language Were More Present in Denmark and Sweden

This was reflected by the use of words such as:

  • Fast-paced: (found in 1400+ descriptions), e.g. a fast-paced office
  • Dynamic ( 1200+), for instance in a dynamic team
  • Young (1200), e.g. a young team, or a young spirited candidate

Key Result 4: Sweden Led the Way in Non-Gendered Language

While there was still a bias for masculine wording in Swedish job posts, it was lower than in other countries. Could this be due to the country’s use of the non-gendered pronoun?

When Inclusive Language in Your Job Posts Attract the Best Candidates

Diversity and inclusion can be understood in other terms: the idea of belonging within an inclusive and open company culture. And when it comes to your job post, it is the first talent touchpoint to portray that company culture.

So it makes sense that using stereotypic phrases can discourage people from joining your company, even if it is an unconscious way of phrasing.

This can also be the case for certain types of industries that struggle to attract a more diverse talent base, like in the tech industry. A study Develop Diverse did with Amazon showcases how inclusive language can help change that in an industry struggling to attract female candidates. By using the Develop Diverse web application, Amazon was able to attract up to 3 times as many qualified applicants, both male and female, and so close the gender gap for those jobs.

An important takeaway when talking about inclusive language is that people from underrepresented backgrounds are not less strong, dynamic, ambitious or competitive. These candidates are just as qualified as others, but see that, just like in standard advertising, non-inclusive language projects an idea of inequality and relying on stereotypes, which prevents them from applying to the job post. This of course has very little to do with the individual values, qualities or skills of the applicants. Non-inclusive language affects candidates’ feeling of belonging based on stereotypes they’ve internalized throughout their whole life from society around them.

How Do You Leverage Inclusive Language?

Diversity and inclusion are increasingly seen as buzzwords in the world of recruitment, when in reality they are necessities. Companies need a more diverse workforce, not only to challenge the status quo, but also to grow and achieve sustainable success and profitability in a multicultural, connected world.In short, D&I isn’t just a nice thing to implement. It’s a competitive advantage every startup should leverage.

Yes, we know what you are probably thinking right now: okay, sounds good, I get it, but how do I actually go from here? Here is how we believe you should put all the odds in your favour:

  • Consider both the content and the form of your ads: you probably try to include your diverse hiring policies. Make sure the language used to describe them isn’t skewed in terms of stereotypes concerning gender, age, ethnicity, being LGBT+, disabilities etc.
  • Leverage the power of employee stories: employee testimonies are a powerful tool, but it’s even more important to use them right. Avoiding gender or otherwise stereotypical content can ensure that you’re sending the image of an inclusive work culture.
  • Don’t think some words are forbidden: sometimes, strong, passionate or fast-paced is what you really need. Just make sure they’re used sparingly, without conveying a sense of a homogenous work environment.
  • Say what you mean: oftentimes the stereotypic words are the ones that don’t convey much meaning about the exact qualities you’re looking for in a candidate. Think about what exactly “strong skills” or a “dynamic personality” mean to you and the work specifically, and say that instead. Buzzwords take away the attention from the main requirements of a job description since they centre cliché/jargon words instead. As a consequence, a job post full of clichés or jargon is more likely to attract people who identify with those words, instead of candidates who fulfil the requirements.

In the end, the entire team behind The Hub found this report highly revealing. Sometimes we can be blindsided in the ways we choose to communicate. We’ll certainly be using these insights to set an example for our users and audience, and we hope you are too, when it comes to crafting a message that truly reflects your startup culture. Want to learn more about doing inclusive hiring?

Our business psychology expert:

Line Holter Business Psychologist

Line Pfeiffer Jørgensen Holter, Business Psychologist, Holter Consulting