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Why aren’t women applying for “manager” jobs?

It’s obvious why women avoid roles like “coding ninja”, but do we need to look at gendered language in job adverts even more closely, asks Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Recently, while at dinner with my older brother – a recruitment manager, currently heading a large team – I realised something that filled me with instant glee.

“I’m never going to have this problem,” I said. “I’m never going to have to worry about managing people!”

I couldn’t believe my luck. I had done it! I had managed to get through my entire career without having to worry about what someone underneath me was doing. If I kept playing my cards right, I would continue as a freelancer, working from home like a plump, cosy Moomin.

“Lucky you,” said my brother, before paying for everyone’s dinner. I hinted that I would “get the next one”, but we both know that I will probably not get the next one, not in a similarly priced kind of restaurant anyway. This is because my brother is well-off and I am (compared to him) poor. This is because my brother manages a dozen people, and I manage myself and my dog.

I used to think my aversion to managing anyone – to having a junior, an assistant, an intern, even a work-experience person – was a me-specific trait; a part of my “personal brand” as a free-wheeling creative type who is too much in their own head to delegate work or share my ideas with others. Lately, however, I’ve been suspicious. Do I shirk authority positions because I don’t like them or do I simply feel that… I have no right to do them?

A recent study suggests the latter. Textio, an "augmented writing software" company based in Seattle, analysed hundreds of job applications for words and phrases that were deemed exclusionary or intimidating to women. It suggested that words like “manage” should be replaced with words like “develop” to make them more female-friendly. Women are, apparently, more than willing to “develop”, but to “manage” a team is, for some reason, off-putting. We are open to team husbandry – a little bit of cajoling here, a little bit of persuading there! – but “managing”? No – no, thank you.

We see words like ‘coding ninja’ and ‘marketing rockstar’ and we know without being told that the workplace vibe is probably a blokey one

You want to dismiss all of this as bullshit, because so many studies turn out to be bullshit – but when the software was used to rewrite an Australian company’s job adverts, there was an 80% uplift in female applications. Researchers from Canada and the US back in 2011 also found that words like “competitive” and “leader” attracted a male application bias, while “support” and “interpersonal” a more female one.

It’s all pretty disappointing. You wouldn’t think, in an age when so many women are being celebrated for their prowess at work and their leadership skills, that simple words that have been used in job adverts since the beginning of time would hold so much sway. Are women really spooked that easily by a few adjectives in a job advert?

The thing is I don’t think that’s the whole story. I don’t think women are spooked by terminology so much as they are very, very good at reading context clues. Fewer women apply for management roles because women are less likely to be hired for management roles. The fact is, while women make up 40% of the global workforce, they hold only 24% of senior management roles around the world and are statistically less likely to apply for management positions if they’ve been rejected for a similar job before. Additionally, black women tend to spend more time job-hunting than virtually any other sector. Eight months ago, Ify Walker, a New Orleans-based CEO and recruiter, went viral after addressing fellow black women with the note “#DearBlackWomen”. “1. You have a right to know your job search will take longer than is just. 2. You will go on more interviews, especially if your name is TaLynn and not Lynn.”

Women are historically excluded from management roles, so don’t apply for them. We see words like “coding ninja” and “marketing rockstar” and we know without being told that the workplace vibe is probably a blokey one and that we are liable to be rejected because of “cultural fit”. We see softer language like “support” and “interpersonal” and we think, “Oh, OK, they might actually want a woman for this.” Maybe we’re not saying this out loud, but it’s ticking away in our subconscious nonetheless. Simply put, we apply to companies we think might be willing to hire us.

And some of us – me, for one – genuinely don’t want to go into management positions. Some of us are OK with our brothers buying us dinner. But doesn’t that change the fact that we should all be able to to look at a job advert and not have to privately consider whether being a woman is a bonus or a liability.


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Photo: Getty Images
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women at work
Caroline O'Donoghue

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