man versus woman on a road ready to runA new study finds that some job postings are unwittingly discriminatory against women because their wording discourages them from even applying for the openings. That could be, in part, responsible for the paucity of top female executives.

The Technical University of Munich has issued the results of a study that claim women do not apply to “male-sounding” job postings. It turns out the words used to describe the position’s responsibility can dampen a female candidate’s enthusiasm for applying.

The study determined, “Women rate their own leadership skills less highly.” For male test subjects, on the other hand, the wording of the job advertisement made no difference.

According to the study authors, women “feel less inclined to respond to ads containing frequently used words like ‘determined’ and ‘assertive’ because such words are linked with male stereotypes.” This is one of the findings of a research project in which scientists from the university “studied how leaders are selected and assessed. They also gleaned some important knowledge about the role of emotions, debunking the cliché that leaders are more successful if they regularly show anger toward their team.”

The scientists showed some 260 test subjects fictional employment ads, according to an announcement of the results. These included, for example, a place in a training program for potential management positions. If the advertisement described a large number of traits associated with men, the women found it less appealing and were less inclined to apply. Such traits include “assertive,” “independent,” “aggressive” and “analytical.” Women found words like “dedicated,” “responsible,” “conscientious” and “sociable” more appealing.

“A carefully-formulated job posting is essential to get the best choice of personnel,” says Prof. Claudia Peus, chair of research and science management, who headed the study. “In most cases, it doesn’t make sense to simply leave out all of the male-sounding phrases. But without a profile featuring at least balanced wording, organizations are robbing themselves of the chance of attracting good female applicants. And that’s because the stereotypes endure almost unchanged in spite of all of the societal transformation we have experienced.”

The scientists demonstrated in conjunction with a team from New York University that traditional perception patterns do apply, not least in respect to leaders, the study discovered. “In a survey of around 600 US-Americans of both genders, respondents considered women and men to be equally competent, productive and efficient on a fundamental level. However, they rated men’s leadership skills more highly. Not only that: the women believed themselves and other women, on average, less capable in this area than the male respondents perceived themselves and others of their gender,” the study reported.

Be careful about rushing out to correct any mistakes your organization may have made in hiring in the past. There are potentially expensive pitfalls if all of the sudden you decide to focus your hiring on women.

Attorney Aditi Mukherji, writing at, says, “No matter what, be careful. With the wrong wording or recruitment process, your help wanted ad might be circled with a big fat red pen — for a discrimination lawsuit.”

He says one mistake companies make is try to balance their workforce with targeted ads, in this case saying an organization wants to hire women executives. “From a legal angle, your workforce should try to reflect the diversity in your area. If your staff isn’t quite mirroring that, try to get your help wanted ad out to media outlets and job boards that reach a wider group of people, but always make it clear that you accept applications from everyone.”

Mukherji also cautions against using word-of-mouth advertising to fix the balance. “Word-of-mouth is a great recruiting resource. But from a legal standpoint, mix in other recruitment methods to make sure you have a diverse pool of potential applicants,” he advises.

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