Vague language in job ads push women away, new research shows

Vague language in job ads can push women away. New research shows how employers can attract more female applicants


Women are less likely than men to apply for higher-return and more challenging jobs unless they meet every single qualification, according to new research providing evidence that vague language in job ads is pushing these women away. 

The research, by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Katherine B. Coffman reveals businesses can draw more women applicants by making it easier for candidates to know whether they’re qualified. This involves getting rid of vague language about the experience and skills required in job postings and listing more precise qualifications.  

“We found that candidates were talented, and yet they self-selected out,” said Coffman, whose research study was inspired by a commonly quoted statistic: Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them.

Coffman and her research team set out to provide empirical evidence to this age-old statistic by first running experimental ads on freelance job platform UpWork. 

The first ads called for expertise in stereotypically male-dominated domains, and used fairly generic and vague language: “We are looking for candidates with [management expertise/experience in analytical thinking], as demonstrated through education, past work experience, and test scores. Successful applicants will also have strong writing and communication skills.” 

The research team offered an “intermediate” position, as well as an “expert” track that was considered more challenging but also came with more pay. Candidates had to choose which position to apply for, if any.

Just 6 per cent of women applied for the expert job, compared to 22 per cent of qualified men. 

Conversely, when the ad language was changed to provide clear guidance on the required qualifications, more women applicants (29 per cent) responded. The ‘clear guidance’ included asking candidates for an exact threshold of analytical or management UpWork test scores to apply to the advanced position. 

Coffman’s team then repeated the experiment on the research platform Prolific to clarify the results, which turned out to be similar to the UpWork study. Only 42 per cent of qualified women applied when vague job qualification language was used, compared to 56 per cent of men. And when specific guidance was given, the per cent of women applicants jumped up to 62 per cent.

In light of these results, Coffman offers some advice for hiring managers looking to attract more female candidates to their job postings: steer clear of vague qualifications, state the amount of experience and the skills candidates should possess, as well as actively recruit qualified female candidates, rather than waiting for people to apply. 

The advice is imperative for businesses as the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report has declared only slow and steady gains for the proportion of women hired to leadership positions in the past eight years (a rate of just one per cent annually, that dropped to just 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2023). 

The data also shows women represent 46 per cent of entry-level roles, but then only 25 per cent of C-Suite roles. And the Global Gender Gap is also still 131 years away from closing


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