Hiring Managers: Get More Diverse and Qualified Applicants

Kieran Snyder, founder of Textio, shares her strategies for eliminating gender bias from the hiring equation.

#womenwhowork Kieran Snyder Kieran Snyder’s groundbreaking software, Textio, is helping companies hire the best of the best—by changing their pool of applicants. The program she and her team developed scans everything from job listings to resumes, looking for subconscious biases. The result? Hiring managers open up their hiring to a significantly more diverse—and more qualified—group. During Kieran's time in the corporate world, working for companies like Amazon and Microsoft, she began applying some of what she’d learned in her Ph.D. program for natural language processing to workplace communication. “It grew out of my own experiences as a woman in the industry,” says Kieran. She did a study on performance reviews, where employees from various tech companies voluntarily shared their reviews with her. “I found that managers were much more likely to comment on women’s personalities, good or bad,” she says. For example, they’d say, “You’re collaborative,” or “You’re a team player.” On the other hand, they’d describe men’s strengths by saying, “You built this incredible technology,” or “You delivered this business result.” She also found that men received far less negative criticism than women did, and when managers did criticize men, it was constructive: "You've done a great job. Next year we really want you to focus on stronger presentation skills." The women would get criticism like, "Stop being so abrasive."

That clear linguistic bias led Kieran to work with HR leaders to develop Textio. “Language is a mirror into somebody’s beliefs and attitudes,” says Kieran. “I like it because it can be measured; you can look at the way documents are structured and the words that are included in them, and actually measure the level of bias.” Textio scans written workplace communication and picks up phrases, formatting and words that carry biases. It’s improved the way companies like Microsoft and Spotify write everything from job listings to employee feedback. “Textio recognizes almost 80,000 distinct phrases that have predictive significance demographically,” she says. Kieran shares her strategies for hiring managers, to help them draw from the most qualified group of candidates—and select the best people for the job.

1. Words and phrases are more gendered than you’d think

There's a set of words that are particularly gendered. In the context of job listings, there are words that attract men or women, as well as words that may repel men or women. We often see these kinds of biases in job listings for managerial roles—hiring managers write something like, "In this job you will manage a team." If you use the word “manage,” statistically, you attract many more men to apply for the role. On the other hand, if you say, "In this job, you will develop a team," statistically, you attract many more women. If you say, "You will lead a team," you attract an even mix of both. It's nuanced, because every manager I know—male or female—would say that they manage, lead and develop their team. They're all important parts of being a manager, but the words themselves carry a selection bias. Similarly, when you say you’re looking for someone with a "proven track record," you tend to attract more men. When you lose words like “proven” and “proof,” and say something like “strong track record” or “strong history” instead, you’ll get a more even mix of men and women. One of my favorite examples in corporate job listings is when they say they're looking for someone who wants to "steal" market share, which is different in subtle ways from "grow" market share. "Steal" ends up being male-biased, while "grow" ends up being neutral.

2. Phrases with military connotations will attract more men

Military language occurs a lot in job listings. People say things like, "This is mission critical." You could just say critical. It means the same thing, but it doesn't have the same kind of selection bias. "Plan of attack" might be another example. “Language is a mirror into somebody’s beliefs and attitudes.” — Kieran Snyder #WomenWhoWork

3. Formatting matters

I did a study in Fortune last year looking at just over 1,000 resumes of men and women in technology. We found that, even when people had similar or identical qualifications and backgrounds, they told their stories on the resume differently. Women were much less likely to use tons of bullets to describe their prior experience. Instead, they wrote full sentences to describe what they'd done, whereas men kept their resumes shorter and used bullets; they were much punchier. Men were also less likely to include executive summaries on the top, and their personal interests section was half as long.

4. Use bullet points judiciously

When you write a third of a job posting in bullets (and the rest in full sentences), men and women are equally likely to apply for the job. But once you write more than half of it in bullets, you reduce the number of women who apply. When you write less than a quarter of your content in bullets, you reduce the number of men who apply. There's a sweet spot that's inclusive—and essential to hit.

5. There's an association between brief bullet points and crisp execution

In technology and business, there’s a cultural value around crisp execution of goals and a man is more likely to answer the question, "What did you do in this job?" with a brief answer: "I built the monetization platform." "I patented five ideas." "I built a team to redefine the user experience." The writing style communicates brevity and precision, which is valuable in a corporate workplace. Women are more likely to share the same information, but with sentences around it; their communication style is about telling a story, which is super valuable, but different. Companies are better when they have a mix of people who have an eye for story and people who have an eye for precision, but they’re subconsciously biased toward the quicker communication style. People don't know that that's about gender; it’s a subconscious association.

6. Lose the corporate jargon

It’s a real problem, and hiring managers rely on it too much. Every demographic group hates it, but women and people of color have a particularly negative response to it. That means they're less likely to apply for your job or engage with your email if you're using jargon. It may be because jargon comes from corporate America, which is a historically white, male world. Dial it down. For example, instead of using the word “stakeholders,” just say “partners.” “Study after study has shown that leadership teams with women on them perform better.” — Kieran Snyder #WomenWhoWork

7. Get someone from another demographic to read your job posting

Before you publish a listing, have people from other backgrounds than your own read it. For example, if you’re a man, say to a woman on your team that you trust, “Read this. I’d like to know what you think.” Don’t get too specific (i.e. “Read this; I want to know if women will apply”). These biases are subconscious, so you don’t want her to be actively looking for them as she reads your listing.

8. Use software

Obviously, as the founder of Textio, I'm a huge believer in using software to get more diverse job candidates. The great thing about software like ours, which spots patterns in your writing, is you can avoid making mistakes before you ever share them with people. You can find out how you sound before you publish something into the world, or send the email or whatever it may be. It’s the most effective, instant way to eliminate biased patterns from your communication.

9. Diversity is a virtuous cycle

If you have more diversity on your team today, you're more likely to be able to attract a broad, qualified group of people going forward. If you're a hiring manager, and you’re starting with a team that’s not super diverse, it’s imperative that the next two hires you make are from different backgrounds than the people already on your team. Being more inclusive is proven to be better for business. Study after study has shown that leadership teams with women on them perform better. The good news is that, once you’ve hired a few strong people that are different from everyone else on your team, they’ll help you attract an increasingly diverse—and more qualified—group.