In July last year, Linda Scott, an expert on women’s economic development, asked: “Who would have predicted that on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, British women would be back in the home, up to their ears in dishes, dinners and nappies, watching their careers evaporated as the pay gap widens?”
It pointed to a stark reality of the Covid-19 crisis. Almost across the board, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequality. In fact, the chief executive of the Fawcett society said, “women’s workplace equality will have been set back decades by this crisis,” while a report by UN Women, published in December, showed that the crisis has added to women’s workloads.
In the business world, diversity and inclusion has become the catch-all term for the approach organizations are taking to build more diverse teams and inclusive workplaces. D&I is now a well-known word, and awareness of gender inequality is now widespread. But the actions taken by businesses with respect to diversity and inclusion have yet to bring about the real cultural change those businesses are aiming for. Still, inequality in boardrooms downwards persists, as does unequal pay and opportunities for women. This is harmful for society, but it’s also harmful for business. A wealth of evidence shows diverse companies perform better than their less diverse counterparts.
Central to building more inclusive teams is recruitment. In a way, it’s the very first hurdle. And so if the hiring process is skewed, unconsciously or consciously, towards male candidates, efforts further along the line to narrow the gender gap may never be made. And one of the most common expressions of this kind of slant in the hiring process is through language: If organizations use biased language or a biased tone in their job descriptions, for instance, they are unlikely to attract female candidates.
Biased job descriptions tend to include a large number of male-coded words. These include variations of “aggressive”. “confident,” “fearless,” and “ambitious,” among others; these tend to carry competitive or even combative connotations. Female-coded language includes variations of words like “agree,” “empathize,” “sensitive,” “affectionate” and “feel.” These words often convey cooperation or sensitivity. It’s important to note, however, that female-coded words do not put men off from applying to jobs; male-coded words will put off female applicants. Job titles, too, can be biased: “Barman” and “salesman” will often stop women from applying. And though it’s less common now, the neutral use of “he” (e.g., “The applicant will be highly motivated. He will be confident under pressure”) should be avoided. “You” is preferable.
Research shows that even Fortune 500 job descriptions are still biased toward men. We studied the job descriptions of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies to see how gender-inclusive the language was, and found that, because of their choice of language, more than a dozen companies were potentially putting off female job seekers. Our tool screened for male-coded words and female-coded words, as well as education bias, use of jargon, and spelling and grammar. Companies including Cigna and American Airlines scored highly for gender-inclusive language, but others, such as Best Buy, did poorly. The language of Best Buy’s job applications was heavily skewed towards men.
What was surprising was that, despite its continuous approach to improving equality around the world, the global sports brand Nike ranked as the second worst for encouraging diversity and inclusion through its job descriptions. For accounting, admin and technology roles, Nike was amongst the very worst with respect to making those descriptions inclusive. Nike is a hugely successful brand, but looked at this way, it performed poorly. It illustrates how even companies with robust D&I programs and a tradition of improving equality can struggle to make D&I “end-to-end.”
The fact is that there are just eight female CEOs in the top 100 Fortune 500 companies. There is, therefore, a clear need to push further for gender equality. At a time like this, it’s crucial that companies take a hard look at their job descriptions and ask themselves if the language they’re using is truly inclusive. For though we often hear about skills shortages or lack of diversity in certain positions, even top companies are not addressing imbalances and unconscious bias at the recruitment level. And if they continue to fail to do this, we will be unable to redress those stubborn imbalances that we still see in the workplace. If the gap isn’t narrowing, then it’s almost certainly widening.