Words that keep women from applying for jobs

Words that keep women from applying for jobs_image v3We know that while women make up 43% of the Australian workforce, they only make up 28% of the digital/tech workforce, with even fewer in pure technical roles.

How we recruit women to these roles, is one problematic area. We can hypothesise on the biases that prevent women from making it through the process – how we advertise, how we shortlist and how we interview. I’d like to stretch your thinking on just one thin slice – the words we use in job ads and position descriptions.

We’ve known for some time that women’s style of communication is more communal, using more emotional and social words than men’s style of speech. In 2011, research established that specific words are a major turnoff to female job seekers because masculine-themed words signal to women that they may not fit in at a particular workplace.

Two software companies – Unitive and Textio have built a business model around text checkers that screen for words likely to prevent a candidate from applying for a role. Both of these paid services have a core list of words and phrases lifted from rigorous research and real time trawling of job listings.

Here are 20 words likely to keep women from applying for jobs:

Active     Ambitious     Analytical     Assertive

Autonomous     Best of the best     Boastful     Challenging

Competitive    Competitive salary     Confident     Decisive

Determined    Dominate    Foosball    Independent

Ninja    Objective    Strong    Takes risks

Let’s take a deeper look at what research says about a few of these. When companies use the word “ninja”, they intend to communicate that they are seeking an aggressive and expert candidate. To most of us though, a “ninja” is a dude.

I wanted to believe that this word appears infrequently in job ads in Australia, but a quick search on Seek suggested otherwise, with many companies deeply committed to Agile, still using this term.

It’s not that women job seekers don’t believe in themselves, but what we know is that phrases like “best of the best” unconsciously signal a company is seeking white males.

Another phrase, “competitive salary” is problematic because women, who are less likely to negotiate, may think they have to haggle over their pay.

Inclusive words look like more like this:

Adaptable     Collaborate     Committed     Connected

Cooperative     Creative     Curious     Dependable

Excellent     Flexible schedule     Imaginative

Interpersonal     Intuitive     Loyal     Resilient    Responsible

Self-aware     Supportive    Thoughtful    Trust

Laura Mather, the founder of Unitive, explains that none of these problematic terms will turn away a female jobseeker on their own, but sprinkled throughout the job ad, they will have that effect. She advises that it’s ok to use masculine-skewed terms, but it’s important to balance them with words from the other side of the spectrum.

Here’s a quick before and after on a company description in a job ad:


We are a dominant software firm that boasts many leading clients. We are determined to stand apart from the competition.


We are a community of developers who have nurtured effective relationships with many loyal clients. We are committed to understanding the software development sector intimately.

And this is what the candidate description looks like:


Strong communication and influencing skills. Ability to perform individually in a competitive environment. Superior ability to satisfy customers and manage company’s association with them.


Proficient oral and written communications skills. Collaborates well in a team environment. Sensitive to clients’ needs and can develop warm client relationships.

Since we know that the language we use in job ads can keep women from applying for jobs, how does language more broadly influence the success or otherwise of women applying for jobs?

I’ll leave you with four ways we can increase our awareness of this:

  1. Think about the word picture you paint of your workplace. Is it all foosball and beer, or community and flexibility?
  2. Ensure your description of an ideal candidate is not gendered.
  3. Think closely about how you phrase interview questions
  4. Don’t let the gendered language women use in their job applications or in interviews, affect your perception of their capability


Thanks to the thought leaders whose articles I referenced:

3 Key ways to attract more female candidates

6 Ways to tweak your job descriptions to attract better candidates –

10 Actionable ways to increase diversity in tech Paper

Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality

Here are the words that may keep women from applying for jobs

Hire more women in tech

How to hire more women at your startup

How to make job descriptions female-friendly

Vic ICT for Women, BoldMoves White Paper

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