Updated 15/04/2021 with new research on the effects of gender coding.
FACT: the words you use in your job descriptions affect who applies.
Struggling to get enough applicants?
Lacking in quality candidates?
If your procedure for writing a job description consists of a google search and copy+paste, then you’re not using your JD’s to their full potential.
This is how to attract a richer, more diverse candidate pool simply by
How to write a job description: the guide
- What is the purpose of a job description?
- Using behavioural science to optimise job descriptions
- Step 1: What is inclusive language?
- Step 2: Experience and education
- Step 3: Reading burden
- Step 4: Job requirements
- Step 5: Selling your organisation
- Use this job description template
What is the purpose of a job description?
A job description is your chance to make a positive impression on a candidate, whilst giving them an idea of the skills required for the job.
Talent can be deterred by listing a requirement too many, specifying one too many years of experience or just by the words you choose to use - which is something you’ll want to avoid when writing a job description if you want to attract a bigger, more diverse set of candidates.
Talented job seekers will be put off by certain language, so turn your job descriptions into a science
You wouldn’t set up a new website without optimising for conversions, so why not optimise your hiring efforts like you would a marketing campaign?
Let’s clear up a misconception before going any further: being ‘put off’ by certain phrases or requirements doesn’t make someone weak or soft.
When we read a job description, we’re judging whether or not this role/ company is a good match for us.
And the words you use convey subconscious meaning.
Those who feel that they don’t ‘fit the bill’ will subconsciously count themselves out.
Women, for example, are turned off from applying if the job description includes excessive masculine language like ‘superior’, ‘competitive’, ‘decisive’ and ‘determined’… but we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of gendered language later on.
The result: top talent is potentially missed as are your hopes of building diverse teams.
Here's the cost of writing a job description WITHOUT optimisation, explained by Demetre in our job description webinar (which you can watch back here)...
Writing high converting job descriptions doesn’t require any guesswork, with a little behavioural science know-how, you can craft job descriptions that cast your net wide, and land you a bigger, more diverse candidate pool to fish from.
So, let’s look at the key areas in which your job descriptions are likely falling short, and see what we can do to fix them.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language means that you don’t use terms that are associated with a particular group.
When it comes to writing a job description, avoid gender-coded words and phrases to attract an even gender split.
The language you use in your job description signals whether or not a candidate would belong in your workplace.
Whilst you may not even be conscious of using masculine coded language, by asking for characteristics typically attributed to males, you’re (albeit unintentionally) signalling that a male would be a better fit - and so women will be less likely to apply.
A study conducted by the University of Waterloo and Duke University found people are less likely to apply to job adverts that had words biased in favour of the opposite gender.
The impact of gendered language will vary from person to person, and overtly masculine-coded job descriptions can actually deter males too.
Check out the results of our own research on this…
The main insight here: There is a higher proportion of female applicants when the job description is feminine(51%) or strongly feminine(54%).
There are slightly fewer female applicants when JD’s are coded as masculine (48%) especially when they’re strongly masculine (44%).
Generally, feminine-worded job descriptions will increase the odds of women applying, while masculine coded job descriptions will discourage female applicants.
We also looked at the gender diversity of those who were actually hired after applying...
We're not the only ones who have improved gender diversity through writing more inclusive job descriptions...
Openreach's research found that women were 50% less likely to consider roles that have a coded gender bias.
When presented with a feminine-coded job description as part of the study, women’s interest in the role increased by more than 200%, with 60% stating this was because of the way it was written.
This gender coding was then tested against the original, less inclusive job description.
- 31% of women felt the original job description was more suited to a man than a woman
- And just 13% of women felt gender inclusive job description was more suited to a man than a woman
Also, the study found that although 80% of women said they wouldn't consider working in engineering, 56% became interested once the word ‘engineer’ had been removed.
So, what counts as masculine coded language?
According to Totaljobs’ survey, the top used male-coded terms were “lead” (leadership, leader, etc.), words associated with analytics, as well as competitive, active and confident.
Most commonly used male-gendered words in UK job descriptions:
Most commonly used female-gendered words in UK job descriptions:
For more examples of gendered language, check out this LinkedIn article.
You should also cut your stereotypical startup lingo such as ‘guru’, ‘hacker’, or even ‘rockstar’(not only are they deterring female candidates, but they’re also pretty lame).
Key takeaway: Aim for either a neutral or feminine coded job description
Won’t that put men off of applying? No… men aren’t equally deterred by feminine coded language. A neutral JD would be ideal, but if it’s feminine-coded it shouldn’t have a significant negative impact on the gender balance of applicants.
Reconsider education and experience requirements - they don’t matter as much as you think
Would you believe me if I told you: both previous experience and education are some of the weakest predictors of actual ability?
*This is why instead of taking a candidate’s word for it that they can do the job, we ditched CVs and invite them to prove their ability using work sample questions instead.
I’m sure you’ve encountered (or created) your share of job descriptions that state “minimum x years' experience” or “educated to degree level” - whilst these may seem ‘essential’ requirements, they don’t actually tell you whether someone is any good at their job.
Just take a look at the results of this landmark metastudy below.
Here at Applied, we would never have hired (or even met!) 60% of the candidates we offered jobs to if we’d relied on their CVs alone. Why? Because proxies like experience and education are misleading. They simply don’t reflect ability.
So, cut them out of your job descriptions as much as possible.
By setting out criteria like this, you’re completely discounting anyone who:
- Took a different path to get where they are in their career (i.e. not via a university degree).
- Is as talented as older peers but simply lacks a few years' of experience.
- Transferred from a similar field but lacks industry-specific experience;
- Comes from a disadvantaged background and didn’t get the chance to get a certain qualification.
- Feels they're too old given the years of experience stated.
I can go on, but I’m sure you get the point.
Of course, for some roles (think medical industry), there might be some degree of education that is genuinely required in order to work safely, but for your average business role, ask yourself this: does this person really need a certain degree or a number of years' experience to be good at their job?
Chances are, they don’t.
You can still refer to experience and education in your job description (if you must), but do avoid putting them as requisites.
Key takeaway: Reconsider what qualifications or years' of experience are actually needed for someone to excel in the role. We’d recommend ditching both altogether and testing skills later on.
Don't list too many job requirements
Keep requirements to a minimum or risk deterring applicants
Your run-of-the-mill job description usually lists a set of requirements, often broken down into ‘essential’ and ‘nice-to-haves’.
Listing too many requirements will decrease applications.
According to LinkedIn's data both genders browse jobs online in a similar way, however, they apply for them differently...
- Women are 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing it
- Women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men
Why is this?
Well, research has shown that generally speaking, women tend not to apply for roles unless they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men who will apply meet only 60% of the requirements.
This is likely due to a combination of gendered differences in confidence and the fact that women are more socialised to follow the rules (whereas men tend to be socialised to think rules are meant to be broken).
It's important to note here that this gendered difference in approach isn't due to how women see themselves and their skills.
It's about how they see the hiring process itself.
If we look at the results of one survey below, we can see that the most common reason for not applying (for both genders) was “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.”
It wasn't that they thought they wouldn't be able to do they job.
They didn't think they would be hired at all if they didn't meet the requirements.
We can also see that there was a significant gender difference in the responses for one particular reason: “I was following the guidelines about who should apply.”
Only 8% of men had this as their reason for not applying.
So, if you list a metric ton of ‘requirements’ when writing a job description - they’ll be perceived as exact specifications by some, and mere desirables by others.
This doesn’t just apply to women. As it turns out, men can also be discouraged by a steep set of criteria too.
Some candidates may simply be more risk-averse than others. The more requirements, the more it seems like a risk to apply.
More requirements = more candidates that qualify themselves out.
*This may seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. Being risk-averse bears zero relation to ability or competence.
You should also consider removing any 'nice-to-haves'.
Risk-averse candidates will perceive these as being more requirements than desirables and may forgo their application.
What requirements are worth listing?
Ideally, your requirements should be a combination of desired skills and working characteristics.
A few examples we've used to hire Applied team members include: written communication, data analysis, prioritisation, and strategic thinking.
It’s tempting to ask for familiarity with the exact systems or practices at your organisation so that the candidate would ‘hit the ground running’ if hired, but you’re potentially dismissing talented people just because they haven’t worked with x software or practices yet.
Not having done something before doesn’t mean someone wouldn’t be good at it - or even the best (if in doubt, may I refer you back to our CV-related revelation above).
In more technical roles, like software engineering, you may feel it’s necessary for candidates to be adept in certain disciplines or tech (such as programming languages and frameworks).
You can list these in the job description.
They still don’t need to be ‘requirements’, as our Engineering Lead Hew explained here.
Key takeaway: Trim down your requirements to the bare essentials (keeping below 10 could be a solid start). If any of your ‘requirements’ are more desirable/ ideal than literal requirements, it's best to remove them.
Scrap the jargon and fancy language - your job description should be clear and concise
Job descriptions should be written at the reading level required to do the job.
This doesn’t mean you’re lowering the bar for dummies...
If you’re not hiring an in-house Mark Twain, then there’s no need for long, rambling sentences and cool-sounding jargon.
The best person for the job may be in a hurry, distracted, or reading from a small screen.
Nobody wants to read a mini-essay length job description.
Not only will time-strapped, in-demand talent skip straight over it, but a quick glimpse of a long job description could be all someone needs to decide they wouldn’t meet the criteria.
You only have a matter of seconds to make a great first impression - make ‘em count!
4 Quick tips for improving job description readability:
- Keep your sentences short and sweet.
- Ditch the jargon and acronyms - knowing the meaning of fancy technical terms ≠ talent.
- Forget buzzwords/ phrases (my personal favourite being ‘think outside the box’).
- Stay between 300-800 words. Shorter posts receive 8.4% more applications.
Common, industry-standard acronyms (like CRM, B2B) are fine to use, we’re talking more about more technical, lesser-known terms here.
However, yawn-some cliches such as “low hanging fruit” and “spearheading” can probably be given a miss. They give off a stale, corporate and insincere vibe that I’m sure you’d rather steer clear of.
Need more convincing? Just take a look at some real-life examples of how not to advertise your open role.
Key takeaway: Keep job descriptions between 300-800 words and write in short, simple sentences to minimise reading burden.
There are tools you can use to quickly check the reading burden, like the Hemingway Editor, or we have a JD-specific analysis tool you can try for free (which also detects things like gendered language).
Don’t forget to sell your organisation - why should someone come to work for you?
Job descriptions work both ways.
Candidates are assessing whether you’re the right fit for them too.
Top talent will have their pick of job offers, so give them a reason to choose you right out of the gate.
Newsflash: nobody works for fun.
Linkedin’s research found that 61% of candidates consider salary to be the most important part of the job description.
Be as upfront as humanly possible about salary, benefits, and flexible working options.
You’ll set the right expectations and potentially help sell your role, and you’ll also stand out from the hordes of roles that lack any transparency around salary.
You want to set off on the right foot - candidates will appreciate your openness...
No candidate wants to feel like the job is given to the lowest bidder.
If a job is worth £40k per year, advertise it at that. Job done!
However, salary isn’t necessarily the #1 reason people apply for jobs.
In a 2018 survey, the top reason people gave for changing jobs was...
Employees aren’t robots.
Surprise surprise, people actually want to progress in their career and tackle new challenges.
So what can you do about this?
Let candidates know what they’ll be doing in their first 6 months on the job. A few bullet points will do.
Not only does this sell the job to candidates, but it could also put the more risk-averse candidates I mentioned earlier at ease.
Also, why not talk about why your organisation exists?
If you have a purpose that people can get behind (or at least get vaguely enthusiastic about) then be sure to throw this in too, since this will also give the sense of a new, exciting challenge.
Describe your work culture and what it’s like to work in your team
According to Jobvite’s study, 46% of job seekers cite company culture as very important when choosing whether or not to apply for a job.
Candidates will be spending 40+ hours a week working with your team, in your office.
And they want to know what that’s going to be like.
The more you can do to paint an accurate picture of the company/ team culture when writing a job description, the better.
You don’t need a Shoreditch office littered with bean bags and pool tables to impress.
Think about how the team works together?
What are the team’s values?
Key takeaway: Don’t hold back - tell candidates all that you can about salary, culture, and what they might be working on.
Putting it all together - reach more candidates and improve diversity by optimising your job descriptions
By taking a data-driven, science-based approach to writing job descriptions, you should see a larger, more diverse set of candidates applying to your open roles.
Key findings from our own research:
49:51 ratio of male to female applications when job descriptions are neutral-coded.
1.4x more likely to hire a female with feminine-coded job descriptions.
10-15% increase in the volume of applications (as promised in the title).
Job description template UK
We know that writing to heaps of specific requirements isn’t easy, which is why we put a job description template together to help you write inclusive, high-converting JDs with minimal effort.
*All of the guidelines below are based on behavioural science research.
About Company X (200 words)
- Describe your organisation and the team
- What's your organisation's mission?
- How will this person contribute to the mission?
- Why is this a great opportunity?
The [title of role] should have these skills:
What skills and working characteristics should this person have?
E.g. written communication, data analysis, prioritisation, etc.
List no more than 8.
In your first 6 months, you'll:
What would you hope this person achieves in their first 6 months? What big projects would they be working on?
Like the rest of the Company X Team, you'll benefit from:
What are the perks? E.g. equity, a benefits package, health insurance, etc
What are the next steps? (150 words)
What does the candidate need to do to apply? What does the rest of the process look like?
You can grab a PDF version of our job description template via the link below - we threw in a job advert template too!
Want to take your job description optimisation to the next level? Try our handy Job Description Analysis Tool for free.
We also used the same behavioural science-based approach to build the Applied platform, baking diversity, inclusion, and data into every step of the hiring process. You can now take it for a spin with a free trial.