How Men And Women Describe Themselves Online

Gender Bias in Social Profiles and Recruiting

March 24, 2022 by Tim Hatton

Even when men and women have done the exact same work, they choose different words to describe their accomplishments, new research shows.

At their core, the recruiting and hiring processes depend on how applicants describe themselves on job applications and profile sites like LinkedIn—meaning those descriptions are hugely important. But they’re also subjective: men tend to describe their work by focusing on its significance, and women are more likely to describe their work by explaining its practical nature. 

Depending on how a candidate describes their experience, the same work and accomplishments can be interpreted very differently. In particular, men and women often use different language when articulating their experiences, creating a situation where bias can develop in the hiring process.

To explore those differences, students from the Analytics Lab at the MIT Sloan School of Management used Lightcast social profile data, which is pulled from millions of data points around the web, to study how gender affects word choice and what it means for both candidates and companies.

Here’s what they found:

  1. Gendered words are used strategically in professional settings

People are trying to project an image in their social profiles. Sociologists have found that certain words in the workplace scan as masculine or feminine, related to stereotypical gender traits. The research group found that both men and women portray themselves with stereotypically masculine language in their self-descriptions, especially using that language to express confidence. Examples of those words included “analytical,” “competitive,” and “independent.” 

However, in fields where women are more prominent, such as marketing, words coded as more feminine—including, for example, “collaborative,” “inclusive,” and “sensitive”—appeared more frequently in descriptions used by both men and women.

  1. Men use executive adjectives; women use operational adjectives

Researchers found that men tend toward describing the importance of their work while women are more likely to use facts to explain its nature. In the male-dominated occupation of financial analyst, female descriptions tend toward the practical nature of their responsibilities through words like “accurate,” “annual,” and “necessary,” while male descriptions of that same work focused on their reach, with words like “senior,” “high,” and “global.” 

A similar pattern emerged in marketing, the predominantly-female occupation group of marketing professional. Women described their accomplishments in terms of what they did, such as being “annual,” “administrative,” and “promotional.” Men described theirs in terms of how well they did, such as being “first,” “best,” and “top.” 

  1. Men are more likely to use proactive verbs, while women more often use passive verbs

Men are more likely to describe their actions as leadership: they “led,” “managed,” or “built.” Women are more likely to describe their actions through a lens of helpfulness: they “assisted,” “reviewed,” and “reported.” 

It’s not a difference in positions, responsibilities, or titles that accounted for these different descriptions. The MIT group found the same disparities even when men and women had the same level of accomplishment and job experience. 

What does this mean for businesses and applicants?

Understanding is the first step. Once workers know that these tendencies exist, they can adjust their descriptions accordingly: the way they articulate their own experience on a resume or LinkedIn profile is entirely under their control. 

Often, that will mean women can give themselves a better chance to climb higher on the career ladder in male-dominated fields. But the reverse can also hold true, as men develop their careers in fields where women hold sway.

Beyond just candidates themselves, this information is valuable for anyone with a vested interest in others’ success in the workplace—especially educators. The more that institutions understand about potential advantages in the hiring process, the better they can advise their students.

The path forward for companies is more complex, but also presents greater opportunities. 

Hiring managers need to understand the potential bias in their recruiting efforts, even if that bias comes from candidates’ own descriptions, because those differences will end up reflected in even the sharpest applicant tracking system. 

For example, the MIT students found that if a recruiter searches for the word “manage” in potential candidates in a financial analyst role, that search would return 8.3% more resumes from men than from women despite equal management experience. Once they’re aware of that bias, businesses can adjust their recruiting process accordingly.

And it’s in their best interest to do so: millions of workers are hidden from companies’ own ATS and hiring practices, according to research from Harvard Business School using Lightcast data. Those who are able to recognize that gap have access to a much deeper and more diverse pool of candidates than those who do not.

The most recent BLS jobs report also showed that the labor force participation rate for women ticked down in February, making it all the more important to reach them in any recruiting effort. 

In such a tight labor market, recruiting is more important than ever, and employers need every advantage they can find. By knowing how candidates describe themselves, businesses can understand their workforce better, learn more about the labor market, and promote equity in the workplace.