Finding the right words

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Engineer. Scientist. Analyst. Are these words loaded with connotations of masculinity? Are they part of the reason why the gender balance in tech and data industry is lop-sided?

Is there a psychological reason that deters suitably qualified women from applying for jobs in stereotypically male fields? Some think there is. In September 2016, Shriti Vadera, chairwoman of Santander UK said that changing the language in ads for banking jobs will attract more women into the sector, which has traditionally been male-dominated. She said that certain words such as “ambitious” and “competitive” can be off-putting.

Two years before that, a German study had looked at the way women responded to job ads in fields like engineering and programming. Researchers led by Professor Claudia Peus at the Technical University of Munich, looked at 4,000 ads to see if they contained words like “dominate” and “leader.” They asked women to respond to the ads and found that ads with more masculine words lead to less job interest and anticipated belongingness among women.

Some purely anecdotal evidence suggests that certain words might put women off a certain degree of study as well. One person who works in an organisation that develops degrees for the tech industry said that the number of women enrolling increased after the title of a particular course substituted the word ‘engineering’ for ‘development.’ The person also said that the word ‘scientist’ seemed to be deterrent to female students.

So can we fix this? Kat Matfield, who describes herself as a product person, service designer and UX researcher, has created a tool that scans ads for male-coded or female-coded words. Users paste the words from a job listing into the Gender Decoder for Job Ads and the tool asserts which gender the ad is geared toward.

I entered a randomly chosen 100-word job ad for a data scientist into the tool. It told me that the advert was masculine-coded. It contained three masculine-coded words; driven, analysis and analysing. On the other hand, there was just one feminine-coded word; understanding.

Female candidate and female interviewersMatfield said she was inspired to create the tool by a 2011 study on the phenomenon led by researchers from the University of Waterloo and Duke University, and helpfully lists the words considered male or female-coded by the researchers. But she doesn’t completely agree with all the entries on the wordlist.

One analyst I spoke to recently ran the words for an ad for a job in her team through the decoder tool. She didn’t agree with the theory that ‘analyst’ was a masculine-coded word. She also pointed out that there is no way to describe function and activities of her team other than ‘analysis’. “That’s what we do,” she told me.

So, the studies show it is worth HR departments revisiting and perhaps rewriting job listings before posting them so that all qualified applicants of every gender feel encouraged to put themselves forward as candidates. However, there is a longer-term issue at play. That is figuring out how to remove the gender associations from words so that ‘self-confident’ is no longer seen as a male trait and ‘understanding’ is not just a feminine attribute.

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