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Creating an Inclusive Job Description

Writing an inclusive job description may demand recruiters and hiring managers reexamine what a job description “looks like.” Here are 7 tips for doing so.

As a sourcer or recruiter, you’re likely working with your hiring managers on job descriptions. You know the talent market better than they do and can offer insights into salary information, competitor data, and how realistic your hiring managers’ expectations are. But you also need to work with them to ensure you're co-creating an inclusive job description—which may mean giving yourself and your hiring manager permission to reexamine what a job description “looks like.”

From the point of view of diversity, “mature” or inclusive job descriptions communicate clear information about what's expected of the applicant and what they can expect from the company. They’re free of jargon and devoid of excessive requirements. They provide key insights into organizational culture and are free of language that may signal to underrepresented talent that they won’t feel safe or welcomed in the workplace. Here’s how you write an inclusive job description that will appeal to underrepresented talent:

Use Gender-Neutral Language

Let’s start with the obvious. When female-identified talent reads job descriptions that say of the ideal candidate: “He will design, code, and test across our distributed, open source database,” there’s a strong indicator in the language that this position isn’t for her. “S/he will design, code, and test” 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. 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. Choose one of these options and commit to it.

Use Inclusive Language

Pronouns aren’t the only words that send subtle messages to prospects about your ideal hire, influencing whether or not they decide to respond. Study after study has found that certain language “skews” male or female, subconsciously appealing to or deterring talent that identifies with a certain gender. You’ve probably heard the obvious ones. “Rockstar,” “ninja,” and “guru” tend to signal a male-dominated culture and repel female-identified talent: each of these words is historically associated with men. The same is true of language such as “kickass,” “crushing it,” “dominate,” and the Silicon Valley-favorite “work hard, play hard.” Not only do these words and phrases imply that the organization won’t be welcoming—or worse, that it will be hostile—to women; they also imply that the culture isn’t inclusive of older talent.

Even less “aggressive” language—“fast-paced,” “ambitious,” “competitive”—has implications. These modifiers have historically been understood as positive attributes for men and negative attributes for women. What’s the female-coded language, you wonder? It includes “collaboration,” “cooperation,” “understanding,” “loyalty,” “passion,” “support,” and “dedication.” Lean toward this “feminine” language. Research has shown that male talent won’t self-select out; so replacing “determined” with “dedicated,” “managing” 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.

Beyond gender, there are other demographics to consider. Aubrey Blanche, currently Global Head of Equitable Design & Impact at Culture Amp, notes that “using highly corporate language is often a signal to people of color that they won’t thrive [in that workplace culture], because that language was developed in predominantly White, male spaces.” The word “stakeholder,” for example “serves as a signal to people of color that their contributions may not be valued.” Blanche is right; but the impact is even broader than people of color: highly corporate language suggests that any talent needs some insider knowledge if they’re going to be successful at the organization. So try “partners” or “collaborators.”

Reduce Requirements to “Must-Haves”...

Take “The R Word” seriously. Are the requirements your hiring manager wants to list actually indispensable to getting the job done? If not, we suggest listing them in a separate category as “nice-to-haves”—and possibly doing away with them altogether.

Why so? Because with every new requirement, you eliminate one more reason qualified, underrepresented talent would self-select out. You’ve probably heard of the Hewlett Packard study which found that women typically only apply for jobs where they meet 100% of the requirements for the role; men, on the other hand, will typically apply if they only meet 60% of them.

Behavioral data from LinkedIn’s recent Gender Insights Report confirms this. While they’re as interested in new career opportunities as men are—and while they view open jobs in virtually equal numbers—women are 16% less likely than men to apply to a job after viewing it. When the Harvard Business Review followed up on this report, they discovered that the reason women didn’t apply had nothing to do with a “confidence gap.” Indeed, female talent knew they could do those jobs as well as men could. They simply believed that applying for the job was a waste of their time and energy, since they didn’t meet all the qualifications set forth in the JD.

In other words, the more requirements you list, the fewer female applicants or female responses to your outreach you’re likely to get. So challenge your hiring managers to consider which screening qualifications really matter, which skills are flexible, and which can be learned on the job. Here are some ways qualifications can reveal unconscious bias:

  • Socioeconomic bias is often unintentionally at play in job descriptions that emphasize the need for advanced degrees from a set of high-profile universities or having studied a certain curriculum—neither of which may have been available to underrepresented talent.
  • Gender bias is at play in programming jobs that require candidates to have spent time contributing to open source software. If you know anything about open source programming, you know that female-identified engineers have often experienced hostility in these spaces; so many simply don’t engage. A 2017 GitHub survey of talent on its own repositories discovered that “the gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women and 1% are non-binary.” And the reality is that, while having contributed to open source development is a “nice-to-have,” it’s not a critical requirement for your role.
  • Gender and racial bias is unintentionally at play in job postings that list seniority requirements. That’s because female representation drops steadily as you move from entry-level positions up to the C-suite. (In 2017, it fell by more than 50%). What’s more, in corporations in 2017 there was a distinct drop-off in women of color when moving up the ranks: from entry-level employees (17%), to managers (12%), to senior managers or directors (8%), to vice presidents (6%) and C-Suite execs (4%). So requiring past experience in seniority positions becomes a barrier to entry for qualified female candidates—especially women of color.

… Or Replace Requirements with Results

What can you put in place of those requirement-lists that are filtering out quality candidates and homogenizing your pipeline? One option is to let go of the requirements-based JD and embrace the results-based JD. These focus on what the employee would be expected to achieve—one month, three months, six months, a year into the role. What will they own and be responsible for? What will success look like at these milestones? Rather than applying because they “meet the requirements,” candidates will apply because they know they can achieve the goals and objectives your inclusive job description—and your outreach—lays out.

Since they focus on tasks and impact (what the role actually does) rather than on what the ideal candidate looks like, these descriptions prevent confusion and better help talent self-select. They help hiring managers craft onboarding processes and give them more clarity in assessing success when it comes time for performance reviews—making unconscious bias less likely to creep into those reviews as well. And they allow talent to visualize both what a growth trajectory would look like for them and how their role would fit into the company’s larger narrative and vision, making it all the more compelling to apply.

Consider Indicating a Salary Range

We know; this may feel completely counterintuitive… but hear us out. 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 LinkedIn, salary range and benefits are the most important information to see in a job description for 68% of women. (We’ll discuss benefits shortly.) Add to this the fact that, in 2019, White women were earning, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Asian women were earning 85 cents, Black women 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents, and Latina women 53 cents for every dollar earned by their White, male counterparts. And on average, Black women in the United States are paid 21% less than their White, female counterparts.

Those are some dismal gaps. Including a salary range in your JD builds trust for prospective talent early on. It lets female and underrepresented prospects 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, race, or other demographic characteristics.

Emphasize Your Company’s Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

If you’ve already employed the best practices we’ve discussed here, talent may intuit the care you’re taking to build an inclusive workforce—whether or not they’re consciously aware of it. But it also doesn’t hurt to just say it. Instead of claiming you’ll accept applications from all demographics, specifically encourage talent from underrepresented demographics to apply. “We strongly encourage people from underrepresented groups to apply” is one of the more common ways of phrasing this inclusive strategy. Data shows that inclusive job descriptions with equal opportunity languagebeyond the boilerplate statement fill, on average, 10% faster across all demographic groups than descriptions that don’t include such language. Which means a statement about your company's commitment to DEI has to be customized, genuine, and human, not cut-and-paste and superficial. Prospective candidates will believe it only if it aligns with the other language cues in your inclusive job description.

Always Be Willing to Revise Your Inclusive Job Description

The job description is a living genre, and you should be collecting feedback and revising where necessary. While you likely won’t include the JD in your outreach, it will certainly inform your outreach. So survey underrepresented candidates to find out what aspects of the description—and of your outreach—ultimately prompted them to respond. Send drafts of your JD to underrepresented talent on the teams you’re hiring for and ask if they’d be willing to offer suggestions. Would the JD, as it stands, give them the impression that they’d be welcome on their own team? With those responses in hand, keep iterating.

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