How to write inclusive job descriptions
January 13, 2023
In recent years, organizations have become increasingly aware of the importance of inclusive and diverse hiring efforts. Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go, as is evidenced by employee diversity data from the Fortune 500 companies. (Fortune 500 companies make up about ⅔ of the U.S. economy, by the way.) The number of black CEOs in the Fortune 500 is at an all-time high of six. According to Deloitte, 83% of Fortune 500 board members are white and only 27% are women (including both white and minority women). And only 1 in 6 of the Fortune 500 publish annual DE&I reports to commit to progress and to hold themselves publicly accountable.
There are many reasons why an organization may not be successful in cultivating a diverse employee base. After all, a lot of elements go into creating an inclusive workplace. However, job descriptions are foundational to all other elements in the hiring process, so writing ones that are inclusive is critical to cultivating a fair and equitable workplace. Until inclusive job descriptions are in place, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to attract a diverse talent pool, much less retain them. Job descriptions are a signal to talent about the experience they can expect when working at your organization. They indicate to underrepresented talent whether or not they’ll feel seen and be valued at your organization. So writing inclusive job descriptions can’t come as an afterthought in your recruiting process. Instead, it must be baked in from the beginning if you want to build a more fair and equitable hiring pipeline.
The struggle for many talent acquisition and recruiting teams is to put tangible parameters around what an inclusive job description actually looks like. If that’s you, you’re in the right place:
1. Use inclusive language
The language in your job description will attract or repel talent—whether or not they’re even consciously aware of it. This is why it’s essential to begin an inclusive job description by thinking critically about the type of language you’ll use.
Use gender-neutral language
Gendered language can be subtle or more overt, but it’s often overlooked due to societal or cultural norms. The key to avoiding gendered language is building an acute awareness in your hiring teams through regular education and the sharing resources (like this one).
When a potential candidate who identifies as female reads a job description that outlines the responsibilities of the ideal candidate as something “he”will do, it indicates to her that this position isn’t for her. Using “s/he” is just as excluding. Talent that doesn’t identify with the gender binary will understand this as a subtle signal that your organization isn’t looking to employ them, either.
So when you describe your ideal candidate, dispense with gendered pronouns altogether. “You will design, code, and test”; “you will be accountable for”; “you will help us disrupt”; and so on. “They”/“them” and “you” are your most inclusive available pronouns, but “you” gives talent the impression that they’re being spoken to directly.
Pronouns aren’t the only words that send subtle messages to job seekers about your ideal hire. A study released by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women were less likely to feel a sense of belonging when reading job descriptions with masculine language. Masculine language also invites women to perceive the organization as employing fewer women and therefore makes the job descriptions less appealing—ultimately making that talent less likely to apply.
Some of these words can seem harmless enough, but words like “driven,” “independent,” and “decisive” have been historically associated with men and tend to signal a male-dominated company culture. Even more nuanced language, such as “ambitious” or “competitive,” which are typically seen as positive attributes for men and negative ones for women, can subconsciously deter women from applying for jobs.
So, what language should you use? Your job description will be more universally appealing if you use more neutral language. (Men don’t tend to self-select out, so even language that skews “female” will be valuable in building a more equitable pipeline.) Descriptive language that has positive associations for both men and women, such as “collaboration,” “passion,” and “dedication,” is more likely to draw a representative talent pool to apply.
Diversity won’t come from a job description that uses exclusive and elite language. If you want a talent pool of people from different backgrounds, identities, etc., avoid corporate or industry jargon. Of course, there will sometimes be niche expertise you’ll need for a role, and it’s fine to use that specific terminology. However, before you use the term, ask yourself if the word is specific to the skill set you need or if it’s just a term you’ve become used to using in your industry or workplace culture.
For example, nothing about saying: “We need someone who can easily pivot between key stakeholders across numerous SaaS platforms to maximize our KPIs” is specific to a required tool or skill set. It’s jargon for jargon’s sake. Instead, phrase the description in plain language: “We need someone who can communicate well with many different people across our organization and help coordinate the team’s efforts in achieving company goals.”
Remove ageist expressions
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), even subtle age-related language in a job description will deter older workers from applying for a position. For example, one of the job descriptions used in NBER’s study said applicants “must be a digital native and have a background in social media.” This subtle language related to a deep-seated technological skill (“digital native” makes it sound like qualified candidates virtually have this skill set in their DNA) decreased the average age of applicants by 2.5 years. Other ageist language decreased that number even further.
Terms like “young at heart,” “avant-garde,” and “fast-paced” all infer that the job is only for a certain generation of people. An older prospect might very well interpret a job description asking for a “digital native” as a sign that they wouldn’t be welcome or perceived to be digitally-savvy enough to do the job.
Of course, ageist language doesn’t just apply to older demographics; it can apply to any age range. A younger prospect may read a job description in search of a “seasoned professional” as an indication that they wouldn’t be perceived to have the necessary skills based on their age alone. So if a certain number of years of experience is critical to the job, say it like that… but be absolutely sure you mean it. If a candidate has only three years of experience rather than four, but they are exceptional at what they do, would you really refuse to consider them?
Eliminate ableist terminology
Ableist terminology is often even more subtle than ageist language is. For people who don’t live with disabilities, it’s easy to take for granted certain words or phrases that feel alienating to people who do live with them. Inclusive job descriptions thoughtfully remove the phrases that are baked into our day-to-day language (“that comment fell on deaf ears”; “can I get a sanity check?”) that haven’t taken people with disabilities into consideration.
For example, a job description that describes a security analytics job as “uncovering blind spots in our security” could make a person who is visually impaired feel like an outsider. Instead, just say the security analyst will be responsible for “uncovering security vulnerabilities.”
Steer clear of culturally-loaded words
Culturally-loaded words are often derived from derogatory historical meanings specific to a country or a culture.
For example, some culturally-loaded words are rooted in systemic racism (e.g. “cakewalk”). They can also be words that culturally appropriate the language of a specific group, like soliciting prospective candidates to “join your tribe” or “schedule a quick pow-wow.” Rather than using these terms, describe what you mean in plain terms: “this should be easy,” “join our team,” or “schedule a quick meeting.”
It’s pretty much impossible to know every word or phrase that might not be inclusive—privilege often prevents us from recognizing this language, as does history. Thankfully, there are now AI tools that can help you check the language on your job descriptions, like Textio and Casey. And if you’re still feeling uncertain about a phrase, run it past members of your team or an organization that specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) evaluations.
2. Reduce “must-have” requirements
According to research by LinkedIn, the leading barrier to increasing diversity for hiring teams is finding underrepresented talent to interview in the first place. One obstacle hiring teams are creating for themselves is the requirements in their job descriptions. Are the requirements the hiring manager wants to list actually indispensable to getting the job done? If not, list them as “nice-to-haves” or get rid of them altogether.
For every new requirement you list, you eliminate one more reason qualified, underrepresented talent would self-select out of applying. For example:
Socioeconomic bias is often unintentionally at play in job descriptions that emphasize the need for advanced degrees. Education—especially at high-end universities—has historically been less accessible to underrepresented groups. However, candidates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), women’s colleges, community or junior colleges, and bootcamps may also have the experience and skills needed to do the job.
Gender bias is at play in programming jobs that require candidates to have spent time contributing to open-source software. Female-identified engineers have often experienced hostility in these spaces, so many simply don’t engage. A study by Toptal found that of a pool of 20,000 GitHub users, only 6% are identifiable as female, and only 5% of those users have contributed more than 10 times. While having contributed to open-source development is a “nice-to-have,” it may not be critical for your role, and it excludes a large pool of highly-qualified female programmers.
Gender and racial bias surface in job postings that list seniority requirements because women and racial minorities often don’t have the same opportunities for promotions and career advancement that White men do. In fact, a study by Lean In found that only 72 women for every 100 men are promoted and hired as managers. Those numbers drop to 64 Black women for every 100 men and 57 Latinas for every 100 men promoted to manager. Because of this disparity, requiring past experience in seniority positions becomes a barrier to entry for qualified female candidates—especially women of color.
Reducing requirements isn’t just beneficial for increasing diversity but also for finding great talent. According to another study by LinkedIn, hiring teams that search for skills are 60% more likely to find a successful hire. The key is matching skills overlap rather than focusing on a stringent list of requirements. To cultivate a skills-based hiring process, start with writing results-based job descriptions.
Indicate a salary range
With new pay transparency laws in Colorado, New York, California, and elsewhere, salary transparency is the talk of recruiting and HR this year. And with good reason. Salary transparency goes a long way toward building trust with underrepresented talent. Wage gaps are still significant for women and minorities. According to a study by Payscale, white women still only earn an average of 82 cents for every dollar earned by men (and that pay gap increases for women from racial minorities).
Sharing a salary range is a simple way to instill in prospects that your organization is committed to equity and fair pay. And it might just make the difference for the 68% of women who view salary range and benefits as the most important information in a job description.
Emphasize your company’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)
Don’t leave your potential candidates guessing; just flat-out tell them you care about building an inclusive workforce. Instead of claiming you’ll accept applications from all demographics, specifically encourage talent from underrepresented demographics to apply and provide accommodations where you can. It can be a simple invitation included in your job description: “We strongly encourage people from underrepresented groups to apply” or “Please reach out if you need accommodations in applying.” That one simple phrase might be the acknowledgment someone from an underrepresented group needs to have the courage to apply.
Data shows that inclusive job descriptions with equal opportunity language beyond the boilerplate statement fill, on average, 10% faster across all demographic groups than descriptions that don’t include such language. This means a statement about your company’s commitment to DEIB has to be customized, genuine, and human, not cut-and-paste and superficial. Prospective candidates will only believe it if it aligns with the other language cues in your job description. Here’s an example of how we display diversity language in job descriptions at Gem:
Ask for feedback and be willing to revise your job description
Your job description should constantly be evolving. Before posting a job description, send drafts of it to the underrepresented talent on the teams you’re hiring for and ask if they’d be willing to make suggestions (be clear this is only if they’d be willing; overburdening underrepresented talent to support your diversity initiative runs counter to the entire initiative to begin with). Ask them if the job description would give them the impression that they’d be welcome on their own team.
After posting the job description, make a point of asking self-described underrepresented candidates what aspects of the job description (and what publicly-available information about the company) ultimately prompted them to apply. Make a note of these elements and plan to incorporate them into other job descriptions.
Analyze applicant data to measure inclusivity
After going through all of these steps, it’s important to measure how successful you are in achieving your goal of inclusive job descriptions. Sure, you’ve asked for feedback and optimized your job description, but how will you really know if it’s succeeding? The key is a talent engagement platform that can gather and analyze hiring data.
Once you have the data and analytics in place, track underrepresented groups at the top of your hiring funnel (to gauge how inclusive your job descriptions really are), as well as throughout your funnel (to ensure DEIB is as baked into your hiring process, and your culture, as you claim it is in your job description). If the number of underrepresented groups is low, your job description is likely not as inclusive as you hoped. On the other hand, if the numbers of underrepresented groups are rising, you know you’re on the right track.
Gem: Your key to cultivating a diverse workforce
Talent acquisition and hiring ultimately come down to building relationships, and that’s what Gem is all about. The better you understand prospective talents’ needs, desires, and responses, the better you can build those relationships and recruit top talent from diverse backgrounds. Here at Gem, we give hiring teams the tools they need to build data-driven talent pipelines, work more efficiently, and cultivate a more diverse and engaged workforce. Want to learn more about how Gem is at the forefront of creating diverse workplaces? Check out our talent CRM or contact us today!
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Inclusive job descriptions are just one element of an inclusive hiring process. We want to help you tackle your diversity hiring challenges from the top of the funnel all the way through to hire.
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