Best PracticesTalent Leadership

Attracting female talent for a more gender-equitable pipeline

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

November 11, 2021

Data from Gem’s database of nearly 2 million recruiting email outreach sequences recently revealed some fascinating insights about gender at the very top of the hiring funnel. Across the board—regardless of company size—email outreach is sent 2.3x more often to male-identified talent than to female-identified talent. (The biggest volume disparity is for engineering and eng manager roles, where email outreach is sent nearly 3x more often to men than to women.)‍

attracting female talent

Gender appears to have little influence on open rates: men open recruiting emails just around 1-2% more often than women do (83% and 82% open rates, respectively). However, there’s a sizable discrepancy when it comes to reply rates: male-identified talent is 7% more likely to respond to recruiting email outreach than female-identified talent is (average reply rates are 37% and 30%, respectively). The biggest discrepancies are for eng manager roles (female talent is 12% less likely to respond), and data and product roles (female talent is 10% less likely to respond). Attracting female talent appears to be a difficulty: there’s not a single role for which women reply more often than men do.  

If men are receiving up to 3x more outreach and are 7% more likely to respond to that outreach, that’s not ultimately going to equal gender parity in your pipeline. Our data is consistent with LinkedIn’s 2018 Gender Insights Report, which showed that, while women and men view jobs in almost equal numbers, something occurs between awareness and application such that women are 16% less likely than men are to apply for a job they’ve viewed. LinkedIn posited this was because women “feel that they’re not 100% qualified for the role.” Yet what Gem’s data has shown is that even when sourcers reach out to tell passive female talent that they are qualified for a role, those women are less likely to respond than their male counterparts are. 

email reply rates by gender

So while it’s possible that “the confidence gap” plays a role somewhere—and possible that women are simply being more selective—we suspect that organizations aren’t attracting female talent because the messaging in recruiting outreach is quietly turning them off. So how do you get more women to respond to your outreach, and get better gender representation in your pipeline? Here are some best practices:

Reach out to more women

​​We’ll start with the obvious: check the demographic makeup of the recipients of your recruiting outreach. We don’t suspect that talent teams are intending to reach out to 3x more male talent than female talent: it’s simply what happens when solutions aren’t in place to check our unconscious biases. Recruitment technologies like Gem break outreach data down by gender (as well as by race/ethnicity), so you can know the makeup of your pools. 

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But even before you start crafting your outreach sequences, make sure you’re sourcing from the places female talent is hanging out. That means getting creative with your Boolean searches on LinkedIn: women’s colleges and universities, sororities, organizations that support and resource female-identified talent. It means building relationships with those organizations and associations—Girls Who Code, Lesbians Who Tech, Fairygodboss, National Association of Women’s Sales Professionals, and so on.

Check the language in your outreach (and your job description)

One best practice for attracting female talent—indeed, for attracting all talent—is not to include a JD in your outreach. The point of initial outreach is to get passive talent excited enough about your org to get them on the phone. A list of responsibilities and requirements isn’t going to stoke them. (Talk about impact instead.) If you must include a JD, check your requirements. There’s gender bias inherent in seniority requirements, for example, since female representation drops steadily as you move from entry-level positions up to the C-suite. There’s gender bias in requiring candidates to have spent time contributing to open-source software. (Female engineers have often experienced hostility in these spaces, so many simply don’t engage.) 

Signalling inclusion through language also means removing gender-coded male language (“rock star,” “crushing it,” “dominate,” “work hard, play hard”). These words and phrases imply that the organization won’t be welcoming—or worse, that it will be hostile—to women. Even language like “fast-paced,” “competitive,” and “aggressive goals” has implications. These modifiers have historically been understood as positive attributes for men and negative attributes for women. 

Replacing “determined” with “dedicated,” “leading” with “developing,” and “drives results” with “creates meaningful change” will alter the responses to your outreach and the makeup of your talent pool when it comes to gender diversity.‍

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Tell stories of the women who are succeeding in your org

Or better yet, have them tell their stories. All prospective candidates want access to the human side of your company. But female talent is looking for you to show—not tell—that your org is invested in creating a welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment for them, and that they’ll thrive there.

There are a hundred ways to show this (or point to it) in outreach. Maybe you quote a female employee talking about company culture directly in your outreach. Maybe you offer to put female tech talent in touch with your female lead engineer. Maybe you create a “diversity recruitment video” that you link to in outreach, in which your female sales reps share highlights from their time at your org. Maybe you choose one female employee a month to showcase on your blog or social media accounts—which, of course, you’ll link to. 

Attracting female talent requires celebrating the career paths and promotions of the women at your org. It requires highlighting women in leadership roles. Let female prospects not only see themselves represented in your org, but also envision career paths for themselves there. 

Shout out your mentorship and sponsorship initiatives

Hopefully your company is providing growth and development opportunities for everyone; but these are particularly important for women, who continue to face barriers and challenges to internal promotion. In 2021, only about 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a womandespite the fact that women have made up 57% of college graduates since the ‘90s. Only 1 in 25 (4% of C-suite leaders) is a woman of color.‍

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Source: and McKinsey & Company

When women can identify with, and forge bonds with, role models in leadership positions who “look like” them—and who will champion them—career advancement and equity begin to feel possible. Female talent will want to hear about the initiatives you have in place to ensure they’ll be nurtured and invested-in. If you have them? Shout them out in your outreach. Link to blog posts by employees who rose in your company’s ranks thanks to internal sponsors. Include images from your recent mentoring event. And so on.

Highlight your employee resource groups 

ERGs are employer-supported networks that come together for community, engagement, and personal development; to hold events; to advocate for diversity in recruiting; and more. These groups not only offer underrepresented—and, in this case, female—employees an opportunity to present concerns, advocate for change, and promote visibility as a united front; they also serve as material proof to prospective candidates that inclusion efforts have support from the top. Share out any information about these groups female talent would want to know. That includes describing the kinds of support ERGs receive in your organization. 

A Culture Amp inclusion survey recently found that less than 50% of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ women feel like their perspectives are included in decision-making at their companies. This is the beginning of a cycle of exclusion which often results in the needs of these demographics getting ignored completely. 

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That’s why female talent wants to know that your company will hear—and what’s more, seek out—their voices and opinions once they’ve been hired. ERGs send a strong signal about a company’s values: after all, they meet during working hours, and their primary return on investment (ROI) isn’t monetary. So share details about your ERGs, or link out to pages about them, in outreach. 

Foreground your (inclusive) benefits

Hopefully your organization has considered broad demographic appeal in creating its benefits... but those benefits won’t attract female talent if you don’t call them out in your outreach. Here’s what to mention: 

Employee well-being. Whatever benefits prioritize employee wellness, lead with those. They’re a measure of how well your org treats its employees, and the degree to which you take their whole selves into account. Data point after data point showed that women disproportionately carried the costs of COVID; so female talent will be listening for the ways companies acknowledge overall well-being.

Your flexible (or remote) work policy. Prioritizing results and performance over hours at the desk is more important than ever in our post-COVID work world. Flexible policies allow parents (often new mothers who are transitioning back into the workforce) and caregivers (again, often women) feel valued and included in the workplace.

Paid parental leave. Talent doesn’t want to choose between having a career and having a family. We like to think companies are generally offering maternity leave—indeed, parental leave for both parties—these days. If you offer it, shout it out in your email outreach. 

If we can take this best practice one step further: call out the ways employees have used these benefits, so that prospective candidates see that no one is stigmatized for taking what’s offered. 

Consider mentioning a salary range

We know from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that nearly two-thirds of women (61%) would take a company’s gender pay gap into consideration when applying for a job there. And according to Payscale’s State of the Gender Pay Gap in 2021, women earn 82 cents for every $1 earned by a man. “Uncontrolled observations of the racial wage gap show women of all races and ethnic groups earn less than white men,” according to Payscale. But “all men out-earn the women within their racial ethnic group.”‍

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The moral of the story? Attracting female talent may mean including a salary range in your messaging, building trust from the beginning. Doing so lets them know that you’re committed to equity and fair pay. After all, the salary you disclose will be the salary regardless of the candidate’s gender (or race, or other demographic characteristics). 

Remember that your talent brand “lives” in many places

This includes your careers page, your social media platforms, your Glassdoor profile, and more. If female talent isn’t responding to outreach at the same rate male talent is, it’s because they’re not seeing cues in all of these places that they’d belong. Showing your org’s commitment to gender diversity and gender equity (assuming it’s there) means considering all your employer branding channels. 

Passive talent may be hearing about your org for the first time through cold outreach. But if they’re even a little bit interested, they’ll be researching you before they reply to decide if yours is a company they could thrive in. So signal your commitment to representation by showing images of your team—in all its diverse glory—on your careers page and in your social feeds, whether they’re collaborating on a project, socializing at an industry event, engaged at team-building offsites, celebrating Women’s History Month together, or doing work with a community organization you partner with. 

Is one of your backend developers speaking at a local Women in Tech event? Post it on social, put the video up on your website, and see if she’d be willing to write a blog post about the experience afterward. You know what to do with those links from there. 

Put yourself in female talent’s shoes

The above best practices for attracting female talent are just a shortlist. Sit down and consider what else female-identified talent would want to hear about your org. One terrific strategy is to do your research internally: talk with the women in your company and find out what’s important to them. What prompted them to respond when your team initially reached out? What facets of your company kept them moving through your funnel; and why did they ultimately decide to join? 

From there, you can build recruitment messaging that’s relevant and effective. As you get responses from prospective candidates, listen to the concerns they voice, and use those concerns both to help build a more inclusive culture, and to shift your own messaging strategies. Here’s an example of what it might look like in outreach:

I’d love to tell you all about our infrastructure and in-house tools and scripts; but before anything, I’d want you to know that Acme was offering you a culture you felt you could thrive in. Here are some resources I think you’d be interested in:

  • A one-year anniversary reflection from our lead engineer, Deena, about what made her choose Acme and what she’s learned in her time here

  • A video from our recent Women in Tech meetup—with our Series B funding, we now have a big enough office to hold these onsite!

  • We were recently voted a Top Company for Employee Resource Groups, which we’re thrilled to add to our 100% CEI score from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index

  • Our team’s own Culture Page, where you’ll find everything from our demographic stats to our best-in-class benefits. (One of my favorites is that Acme employees are given one day a month off to work on their own passion projects or take a self-care day. Last month, one of our AEs, Jackie, spent her day at the MoMA with her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmin. She wrote about the experience here.)

Track Your Outreach Stats by Gender, and Adjust as You Go

Tools like Gem allow you to track metrics (open, click, replied, and interested rates) by gender to understand what messaging is resonating—or isn’t—for women. Is there inadvertent bias in your messaging? What content is attracting female talent more to click—and what content are they responding to?

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This data can shed light not only on whether teams are reaching out to a gender-diverse talent pool, but also on whether there are systemic biases that might show up as women respond less to that outreach. 


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