Recent research shows that the language used in job postings may be holding women back from work

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

Why are women still underrepresented in many high-profile fields like finance and STEM? The reasons behind this are complex and may include gaps in education, lingering gender stereotypes, lack of role models, and concerns over work-life balance. Findings from a recent study titled “Decoding bias: Gendered language in finance internship job postings” suggest that the language of job postings may also play a role in discouraging or dissuading women from applying for positions. Authors Erin Oldford, Assistant Professor of Finance, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and John Fiset, Assistant Professor of Management at Saint Mary’s University, assessed the language of job postings across the financial services industry by using an established dictionary of “agentic” and “communal” words. These terms date back to established literature which defines “agentic language” as self-oriented and focusing on power and achievement, and “communal language” as focusing on harmony and collaboration, with men identifying more with agentic and women with communal goals. The study found that agentic language permeated internship job postings across the financial services industry, even in companies recognized for their diversity and inclusion initiatives. “This creates a significant mismatch”, says Olford, “since women feel a stronger sense of fit with the position and are more interested in applying when job postings include higher levels of communal language”. The authors conclude that companies interested in recruiting more women should pay closer attention to language in job postings as a first step to reducing this subtle form of gender bias. “That means organizations should prioritize communal rather than agentic language and goals”. They also encourage organizations to extend this concept beyond job postings to other areas where potential applicants seek out information about the company, like websites and annual reports.

The study provides examples of real job postings analyzed and puts forward some useful suggestions for alternative wording:

Agentic phrasing:

– Benefit from an independent and goal-oriented culture that provides the foundation for your success.

– Company X is looking for keen, responsible and capable individuals eager to succeed.

You will capably contribute to the company’s hard-won reputation.

Communal phrasing:

– Benefit from our inclusive culture that supports the group while also respecting conversation and debate.

We appreciate self-learners with strong interpersonal skills.

– As a valued member of our team, we will work together to develop a shared culture of inclusivity, loyalty and trust.


“Decoding bias: Gendered language in finance internship job postings”, Erin Oldford, John Fiset, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Finance, September 2021 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2214635021000885?via%3Dihub

 “Workplace language encodes gendered expectations that feed into who we hire, how we assess people and who we promote, holding some people back”, Cristine Ro, BBC.com, August 4, 2021  https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210730-the-coded-language-that-holds-women-back-at-work

 “How to avoid gender bias in job postings”, Erin Oldford and John Fiset, The Conversation, August 17, 2021 https://theconversation.com/how-to-avoid-gender-bias-in-job-postings-165037

 “How To Break Down The Barriers Young Women Still Face In STEM”, Bianca Barrett, Forbes,May 4, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/biancabarratt/2021/05/04/how-to-break-down-the-barriers-young-women-still-face-in-stem/?sh=67a26bca1ea1

 “Why Are So Few Women in Finance? It’s Complicated”, Sarah Chandler, Investopedia, July 21, 2021 https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/092315/why-are-so-few-women-finance-its-complicated.asp

 “ Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality”, Danielle Gaucher and Justin Friesen (University of Waterloo) and Aaron C. Kay (Duke University), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology © 2011 American Psychological Association, Vol. 101, No. 1, 109–128  http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com/static/documents/Gaucher-Friesen-Kay-JPSP-Gendered-Wording-in-Job-ads.pdf

“Gender decoder” tool http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com/about