The Confidence Trick: Planning on returning to work? Don’t be put off by the language of a job description

Confidence Trick

How many times have you thought a job sounded exactly what you were looking for only to be put off by a lengthy job description with wording that undermined your confidence? I’m sure this has happened to many of us at some time – and especially if you’re planning on returning to work. The role and the company ticks your boxes but when you read the actual job description, something starts nagging at you – you’re not exactly sure what it is, but you start talking yourself out of applying for it.  Have you ever considered why this might be?

Research has shown that the way a job ad is written can determine how it appeals to men and to women.  For example, the use of words like ‘strong‘, ‘dynamic’ and ‘competitive’ have been shown to encourage more male than female candidates to apply whereas words such as ‘support’, ‘collaborate’ and ‘develop’ resonate more with female candidates.  A particular job word that’s a bugbear of mine is ‘spearheading’. To me it feels hostile and not something I’d really want to do. I would feel far happier with a description of ‘leading a sales initiative’ or ‘developing new business sales’ – but anything involving spears tends to put me off! Words do matter.  Especially when returning to work!

As gender balance in the language used in job ads makes a big difference to applicants, larger companies now use software aimed at removing words that lead to unconscious bias from their job ads. Apparently, just replacing the word ‘build’ with ‘create’ achieves a better score when job ads are run through the software.  This can be very relevant in technical jobs.

When an Australian software giant employed software to make sure it’s job-ads were gender-balanced and changed any words that showed up as having an unconscious male bias, they saw an 80% increase over 2 years in women being hired in technical roles. But not all companies will do this, ads are often re-hashed or rushed out to meet tight deadlines with little thought given to the language used.

The format of a job ad can also make a difference to who applies and apparently lengthy job ads with multiple bullet points can result in a drop-off in women applying for the job. This may be linked to what I call the 80:40 split. Research shows that women often won’t apply for a job until they feel they meet 80% (or more) of the job requirements whereas men may apply even if this figure is only 40%. It is possible therefore that the more bullets listed in a job ad has a negative effect on women applying as it becomes harder to meet this subconscious 80% mark. 

My advice on returning to work is to be scientific and calculating about job ads so that you don’t talk yourself out of something good just because of the way it is worded or presented.  

  1. Print out job ads – if there’s a very long list of bullets, try to calculate which you feel are really crucial to the job
  2. Re-consider any specific words that give you concern and try replacing these with a word that virtually means the same
  3. Give yourself positive marks out of 10 for your ability in each of the areas
  4. Don’t assume you have to do 80% of the job to apply – think of your potential to do the job   
  5. Then consider how you truly feel about applying – and whether you ultimately apply or not, this way you will have made a rational decision

Mainly don’t be put off by someone else’s choice of words that may be the result of unconscious bias – you could be exactly the person they are looking for.

Sandie Reed is a Career Development Coach who specialises in supporting and encouraging women to maximise their potential. You can contact Sandie via her website

She also co-runs Back to Work Workshops for women returning to work after a career break – details can be found at  

If you would like a free CV review, please email your current CV to  [email protected] – I will review your CV and provide you with a written response with advice on how you could improve it and send you a free CV template to try.

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