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The Weight of Words

From Lightcast and UNESCO: Male-Coded Language Corresponds to Lower Female Employment and Promotion

Women's labor market illustration

Words matter.

If job postings are written in a way that’s biased toward men, they are inherently unfair to women. Not only is that wrong in terms of gender equity; it’s also bad business in a labor market that can’t afford to leave anyone on the sidelines.

Lightcast job posting data can capture the exact language used in postings, including a measure of how many masculine- and feminine-coded words they use. Comparing that usage to employment data can reveal how they’re related—and what that means for women in the labor market.

Labor force participation is 25% lower for women than men worldwide.

One way that women face discrimination in the labor market is through the vocabulary used throughout it: the language used in a society reflects its norms, stereotypes, and culture, and language can be discriminatory, either consciously or unconsciously. 

Using Lightcast job posting data, researchers studied the exact vocabulary used in job postings across six English-speaking countries and analyzed whether the language was masculine or feminine, then compared that data to employment outcomes.

Labor Force Participation Rates, 2022

Women are less likely to apply for jobs with a higher concentration of male keywords. 

Male-coded language  is present across several countries around the world and is negatively correlated with female employment. Job postings for certain occupations and sectors, including jobs in STEM and manufacturing, are more likely to include male keywords.

Common male-coded terms include “lead,” “challenge,” and “independent,” while the top female-coded terms are “support,” “committed,” and “responsible.”

Gendered language can also limit promotion—not just participation.

Even once women are already in the labor force, the “glass ceiling” effect keeps them disproportionately excluded from leadership roles. Manager-level positions tend to have higher levels of masculine-coded language than non-manager postings, and sub-manager positions tend to have higher levels of feminine-coded language than manager-level positions. Even in industries where female workers outnumber their male counterparts, women are less likely to become managers than men. Glass ceilings persist throughout the labor market.

Beyond Language, Benefits Matter, Too.

Another way to use labor market data to understand its impact on women is by looking not at the language of the postings, but at what those words express: in this case, employment benefits. Across every country analyzed, there is a clear positive correlation between childcare support of any form being offered by the advertising employer and the female employment rate. 

Australia and New Zealand are leaders in employment offerings that benefit women, particularly related to remote work. Over 10% of all Australian postings mention parental leave or some other kind of parenting support, and nearly a quarter of all postings there offer flexible scheduling. In New Zealand, 17% of postings offer flexible work.

Correlationbetween women-friendly benefits and female employment

Language mirrors beliefs and social norms. The text of online job posting can help inform about the hiring expectations of companies worldwide in terms of skills, responsibilities, performance and even gender. Using data from online job posting and about career progression in six Anglophone countries, this study finds evidence that masculine-coded language correlates negatively with female employment and with career progression.

The glass ceiling that emerges looks imposing and difficult to crack: managerial position ads feature greater levels of masculine-coded language than non-managerial ones, especially in male dominated fields like STEM. Even in industries where women outnumber men, women appear less likely to reach top positions.

Finally, benefits do appear to matter and foster greater women’s employment, especially childcare. In a world where gender inequalities persist, addressing the harmful use of gendered language in the labour market is a cost effective, easy fix, but one that can bring important changes and payoffs to our societies and economies.

"The barriers that women face when entering or moving within the workforce are not forces of nature. The weight of words in job postings can be significant, and it is people who choose to write and publish them: the language used in job postings can implicitly signal to women that men are most suited for the job or more welcome to apply, which may significantly put women off from applying and result in fewer women candidates. This is a vicious cycle — words reflect biased societies, ultimately resulting in even deeper divides.

Saying the right words is as cheap and easy as it is powerful, so why are we not doing it already?"

Gabriela Ramos,

Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences


The untapped potential of women in the workforce is immense.

And there are tangible steps that can help rectify this imbalance. What does this mean for employers and policymakers?

By using more gender-neutral terms in job postings (especially in management roles), and by offering more benefits that reduce challenges like childcare, economies around the world can welcome more women into the labor force. This benefits not just those women involved but the entire global labor market, especially given the current worker shortage.

While many obstacles that women face demand complex, drawn-out work to solve, others are more straightforward. Progress addressing long-standing biases about the role of women in the workplace is happening on the scale of decades; adjusting the language of a job posting takes minutes. Gender bias makes its way into language subconsciously, and it takes deliberate attention to notice where it occurs. But because masculine language in job postings discourages women’s labor force participation, this is an area that demands that attention. 

Learn more about how language shapes gender equity in the global labor market.

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