Women Won’t Apply for Jobs Seeking “Assertive” Applicants. Should Women Change, or Should Job Ads?

What Women Really Think
April 7 2014 11:40 AM

Women Won’t Apply for Jobs Seeking “Assertive” Applicants. Should Women Change, or Should Job Ads?

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A new study finds that women shy away from applying for jobs that seek "aggressive" or "independent" candidates.

Photography by Pixland

Women shrink from applying for jobs when the job descriptions “sound” male, a new study suggests. Researchers from Technische Universität München presented 260 men and women with employment ads for management positions. If the ads contained words like “aggressive,” “independent,” “assertive,” “determined,” and “analytical,” the women said they found the job unappealing, and that they probably wouldn’t apply. (The men were unfazed.) When the ads used descriptors like “responsible,” “dedicated,” “sociable,” and “conscientious,” the women sent in their symbolic CVs in droves. (Men: equally enticed.) So perhaps men don’t actually read job notices before they submit their resumes. Or perhaps they don’t care whether they meet the stated criteria. (In fact, there’s evidence to support this hypothesis: While most women only chase positions for which they possess 100 percent of the prerequisites, men often undertake the professional climb with knapsacks 60 percent full.) Perhaps, though, guys just identify with a broader range of human traits than ladies, who apparently inhabit a Divergent-like world in which being conscientious precludes the possibility of being independent too.

Now the question is: What should employers do about it? One answer is that companies who want “assertive” candidates should sing it out! If a woman blanches at the scary job posting, she’s a trembling daffodil, i.e., not “assertive,” i.e., not the right person. You find confident managers by designing an application process that rewards confidence.

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But you don’t necessarily find talented managers that way. By framing employment ads in a fashion that invites more women to apply, firms can court more overall genius, skill, creativity, and diligence. They have no ethical imperative to use language that sets daffodils at ease, but doing so may actually benefit them: While you can nurture a sense of authority in someone by placing her in a role that demands it, you can't mainline her IQ points. To take a longer view, a big part of why some women fear they can’t perform in leadership positions is that they haven’t seen other women do it well. Start filling the upper echelons of businesses with qualified ladies (imposter syndrome and all), and maybe the notion of a “determined” or “agressive” female manager will begin to inspire less cognitive dissonance.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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