Language Matters in Job Listings

In the New York Times this week, Claire Cain Miller wonders why more unemployed men aren’t going after jobs in the industries that are growing the most, such as healthcare.

One key reason behind “one of the biggest economic riddles today,” she writes, is that “these so-called pink-collar jobs are mostly done by women, and that turns off some men.”

Seattle-based software provider Textio recently dug a bit deeper into this conundrum, examining the terminology used in listings for the 14 fastest-growing jobs between the years 2014 and 2024. Their analysis found the way the descriptions of these roles are worded has led to an overabundance of unemployed men and plenty of jobs going unfilled at least partly because they’re perceived as being “women’s work.”

I’ll stop here to point out that the software Textio provides is designed to, in the company’s own words, “optimize job listings for more qualified and diverse applicants.” And, I’m not exactly sure how Textio is defining terms used in job listings as being “masculine” or “feminine.”

All that said, they found some interesting evidence to support the idea that language matters in job listings.

In its analysis, Textio found that the descriptions for these quickly-growing positions “used feminine language, which has been statistically shown to attract women and deter men,” according to the Times.

Consider home health aides, the number of which is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by 38 percent by the year 2024.

Currently, females hold 89 percent of these positions, according to the BLS. The job listings for home health aides—which Textio found to be the most “feminine”-sounding—commonly contain key words such as “sympathetic,” “care,” “fosters,” “empathy” and “families,” and are more appealing to female applicants, according to Textio’s analysis. Textio found the job descriptions and requirements for many other predominately female-held roles—nurse practitioner, genetic counselor and physician assistant, for instance—frequently include similar key words and phrases.

On the other hand are cartographers, who find themselves in “one of the few fast-growing jobs that is male-dominated,” according to the Times, noting that cartographer jobs are expected to increase by 29 percent in the next seven years. (Men currently represent 62 percent of the profession.) In evaluating the wording typically used to advertise these jobs, Textio found “masculine” terms like “manage,” “forces,” exceptional,” “proven” and “superior” were often thrown around.

But health aides need to be “exceptional” and “proven” too, writes Cain Miller, adding that the reverse is not automatically true.

“Cartographers don’t necessarily need to be ‘sympathetic’ or ‘focused on families’ to excel,” she says. “That might be one reason that women have historically entered male-dominated professions, like law or management, more than men have entered female-dominated ones, like teaching or nursing.”

As Cain Miller points out, some healthcare employers have tried to use more manly language in an effort to reverse this trend, “like talking about the ‘adrenaline rush’ of being an operating room nurse.” Rather than rewriting “feminine” job descriptions in hopes of appealing to male candidates, or vice versa, Textio suggests using more gender-neutral lingo.

The latter approach is more effective, according to Textio, which says replacing words such as “world-class” and “rock star” with terms like “premier” and “extraordinary” improved the candidate pool for a software developer position, for example. Textio also claims that more gender-neutral wording enables employers to fill jobs 14 days faster in comparison to posts with a gender bias, in addition to attracting a more diverse collection of applicants.

That makes sense. And, while the Textio analysis focuses primarily on the healthcare sector, it’s probably safe to say that taking this kind of tack could deepen the candidate pool in any number of industries—at a time when finding the necessary talent is becoming more and more difficult.