Words change women's attitudes to jobs, study finds

A female Openreach engineer at work

An Openreach engineer - the company wants to appeal more widely to women - Credit: Openreach

Bosses at a communications network giant admitted they were "amazed" when some subtle changes to a job advert attracted twice the number of female applicants.

Openreach put its use of language under the microscope in a study which analysed the impact of latent bias in job adverts.

Openreach jobs ads study

Two Openreach job ads, the second after the ad has been vetted for gender bias - Credit: Openreach

It hopes a new linguistic approach will help it to recruit more women into roles they might otherwise have been put off applying for before because they thought they were aimed at men.

Nationwide, the company employs 34,000 people - 3,300 of whom live and work in the East of England.

It has recently announced plans to create 295 jobs in the region as it ramps up plans to bring full-fibre (hyperfast) broadband to more hard-to-reach locations across dozens of sites in the east, including Caister-on-Sea, Kings Lynn and Hunstanton in Norfolk and Bungay and Haverhill in Suffolk.

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More than half (55%) of women are said to be considering a new career as a result of the pandemic - but a quarter (24%) still feel some careers are better suited to men with 80% automatically discounting engineering as a choice.

But the study found that when a job title for a role at Openreach was changed from 'Openreach trainee - Engineer' to 'Trainee network co-ordinator' with some changes made to the type of applicant the company was seeking, the change in response was marked.

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Openreach worked with linguistic specialists Linguistic Landscapes and gender bias expert Dr Chris Begeny from Exeter University.

They created a new, consciously unbiased, job description for the company’s entry level engineering role.

The new wording was tested against the original advert with 2000 women of working age in the UK. The study found a third of women (31%) felt the original advert was more suited to a man than a woman, compared with just 13% of women for the new advert.

The study found three key areas which needed to be improved including latent gender wording, changes in grammatical construction from passive to active and key job descriptions.

The results were "overwhelming", the company said, and showed how language could play a key role in bringing more women into engineering careers.

Despite four in five (80%) women admitting they wouldn’t consider working in engineering, more than half (56%) were interested in the engineering job role once it had been reimagined and the word engineer had been removed. 

Dr Chris Begeny, Research Fellow in Gender and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, said: “The findings are extremely exciting as they demonstrated such a clear discrepancy between the two adverts and suggest that the latent barriers to application remain, illustrating how gender-inclusive ads could be vital to bringing more women into a range of sectors similarly viewed.

"All too often the rhetoric around issues of underrepresentation and improving women’s experiences in male-dominated sectors emphasises the idea that women need to 'lean in' and overcome their own 'internal barriers' – overcoming that lack of confidence or lack of perceived fit for a position that might lead women to pass up on an opportunity to pursue a particular job.

"Yet these 'fix yourself' strategies, often espoused as a method of empowerment, can perpetuate victim blaming. They reinforce the belief that the problem exists squarely within the individual – a problem of 'internal barriers' – and so it is the individual’s responsibility to 'fix' themselves."

Openreach HR Director Kevin Brady said: “Whether it's overt discrimination or a more subtle forms of bias, male-dominated industries like engineering have traditionally been challenging for women.

"Our engineers aren’t defined by their gender, they’re defined by what they do, and this research is incredibly important in helping us to develop ways here at Openreach to redress the balance.

"We were amazed to see just how much of a difference language makes and have started the process of assessing and changing all relevant language to help overcome the challenges of diversity recruitment. We hope that this will be the catalyst for helping to break down barriers stopping women from considering a role in engineering.”

Openreach admitted that it had historically found appealing to female applicants challenging, but the research was part of a wider initiative within the business.

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