I wrote for Wired:
Only 11 percent of all engineers in the U.S. are women, according to Department of Labor. The situation is a bit better among computer programmers, but not much. Women account for only 26 percent of all American coders.
There are any number of reason for this, but we may have overlooked one. According to a paper recently published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there could be a subtle gender bias in the way companies word job listings in such fields as engineering and programming. Although the Civil Rights Act effectively bans companies from explicitly requesting workers of a particular gender, the language in these listings may discourage many women from applying.
The paper — which details a series of five studies conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Duke University — found that job listings for positions in engineering and other male-dominated professions used more masculine words, such as “leader,” “competitive” and “dominant.” Listings for jobs in female dominated professions — such as office administration and human resources — did not include such words.
A listing that seeks someone who can “analyze markets to determine appropriate selling prices,” the paper says, may attract more men than a list that seeks someone who can “understand markets to establish appropriate selling prices.” The difference may seem small, but according to the paper, it could be enough to tilt the balance. The paper found that the mere presence of “masculine words” in job listings made women less interested in applying — even if they thought they were qualified for the position.
Shanley Kane, a software product manager in the Bay Area, says these subtleties should not be overlooked. “It’s worth paying special attention to how the ‘masculine-themed’ words they tested for — competitive, dominate, leader — denote power inequalities,” she explains. “A leader has followers. A superior has an inferior.”