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Biased language deters half of female candidates, finds Openreach

When looking into the language of its job adverts, telecoms firm Openreach found that half of female candidates were put off if the language of a job posting was too unconsciously male

Biased language in job adverts can mean the difference between a female candidate applying for or passing up on the opportunity, according to Openreach.

Research by the telecoms firm into the language of its job postings found gender-biased language put around half of women off from applying for those job roles.

The research, by gender bias expert Chris Begeny from the University of Exeter and linguistics firm Linguistic Landscapes, has led to Openreach changing its approach to language in its recruitment campaigns in a bid to increase the number of women applying for its roles.

“The findings are extremely exciting as they demonstrated such a clear discrepancy between the two adverts and suggest that the latent barriers to application remain, illustrating how gender-inclusive ads could be vital to bringing more women into a range of sectors similarly viewed,” said Begeny.

“All too often the rhetoric around issues of under-representation and improving women’s experiences in male-dominated sectors emphasises the idea that women need to ‘lean in’ and overcome their own ‘internal barriers’ – overcoming that lack of confidence or lack of perceived fit for a position that might lead women to pass up on an opportunity to pursue a particular job. Yet these ‘fix yourself” strategies, often espoused as a method of empowerment, can perpetuate victim blaming.”

The number of women in the UK’s tech sector has been unmoving for some time, with recent research from BCS finding that women make up around 17% of IT specialists in the UK.

When it comes to breaking into the sector, women can face a number of barriers including a lack of visible role models, unconscious bias in hiring processes and internally within businesses, imposter syndrome, and non-diverse interviewing panels, among other things.

Openreach tested one of its job adverts for a junior engineer and found that changing the language of the job advert to make it less biased increased interest from female candidates by around 200%, with more than half saying this was because of the language in the posting.

The research found improvements that could be made included removing hidden gendered phrases, being aware of whether active or passive language is used, and re-working the way the key skillsets needed were described.

When it came to the key skillsets listed in the job posting, 75% of the women asked said they felt they needed to fit the job specification by 70% or more before applying, and half said they felt they needed 80% or more of the specified skills before considering applying.

When asked about the difference between the job advert before and after its changes in language, 31% of women said they felt the original posting was more suited to a male candidate, as opposed to only 13% once the language had been changed.

The firm is aiming to recruit a minimum of 20% female candidates into new roles in 2021, but claimed in the past is has found appealing to female applicants to be “challenging”.

Although changing the language in its job adverts is a step in the right direction, Openreach found there are still stereotypes at play in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors, with around a quarter of women claiming they believe some careers are better suited to men, and 80% saying they wouldn’t consider a career in engineering.

But once the word “engineering” was removed from the job posting for a junior engineer role, changed instead to trainee network coordinator, around 56% of the women asked said they would be interested in the role.

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