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4 overlooked types of bias in business writing

The challenge of unconscious bias is that, by definition, you are unaware of it. It’s very difficult to recognize one’s own implicit biases, but it’s also impossible to deny their impact—especially if your company hasn’t fully diversified its workforce.

For that reason, a lot of the attention given to unconscious bias has focused on how to remove it from hiring practices. Companies have instituted anti-bias training for managers, created diverse hiring committees, and standardized interview questions and scoring systems to avoid being influenced by a candidate’s gender, race, age—even height.

But what about implicit bias in a company’s writing? Take job posts, for example: Biased language here could discourage particular groups from ever applying in the first place. And beyond hiring, could you or people in your organization be inadvertently using problematic phrases in memos, chat messages, and other internal communications? How might that impact your team’s engagement and sense of belonging?

Some of the most common types of bias in business writing are more or less invisible to the untrained eye, only becoming apparent through research and data analysis. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the implicit biases you may be overlooking in your company’s writing.

1. Gendered language

Implicitly gendered language is a common type of unconscious bias in business writing, and it can be easier to miss than you might guess.

Certainly, there are many tired business clichés that have some “macho” overtones—think killer instinct or work hard, play hard. But at Textio, we’ve also seen, for example, that many of the phrases statistically proven to attract more male or female applicants to job listings have no obvious masculine or feminine connotation.

Textio has found that the words exhaustive, enforcement, and fearless all result in more men applying to a position than women. Meanwhile, the terms transparent, catalyst, and in touch with have all been proven to appeal more to women than men. It’s not clear exactly why these words currently have implicit masculine or feminine biases, it’s just clear that they do. Thankfully, augmented writing technology catches biased phrases like these as you’re writing.

The County of Los Angeles realized soon after beginning to use Textio that despite a large workforce and wonderfully diverse populace, its job post language failed to reflect the County’s diversity. Some of the most frequently used words and phrases in their job listings—including competitive, manages, oversees, and zero tolerance—carried a masculine bias.

With Textio, the County of Los Angeles was able to reduce the overuse of those terms and increase the prevalence of phrases like initiative and care for, which have been shown to increase the number of women who apply.

Zillow Group has also successfully leveraged the power of augmented writing to help eliminate gender bias in their language. In 2016, 55% of their job descriptions had a masculine tone. In using Textio, that number fell to just 4%—and Zillow Group was recognized by Great Place to Work as one of the best workplaces for women in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

2. Cultural and regional biases

What may seem to you like a common expression can easily confuse or alienate someone from a different region or background.

Though the international language of business is English, certain “Americanisms” can get lost in translation for non-native English speakers. Sports metaphors like tee it up, touch base, cover all our bases, and level the playing field can be confusing to folks in other parts of the world. Sayings like work the graveyard shift and piece of cake also don’t work for a diverse audience.

Even native English speakers in the U.S. and U.K. sometimes confuse one another. For example, a bi-weekly meeting would be held once every two weeks in New York while it’d be twice a week in London. In the U.K., the term fortnightly describes something that happens every 14 days.

There are also many American business metaphors that come directly from our romanticization of the frontier, such as trailblazer, groundbreaking, and pathfinder, or Gold Rush terms like pan out and hit pay dirt. These tend to play poorly across the pond, where a cowboy is defined as “a person without qualifications who competes against established traders or operators, providing shoddy goods or services.”

Even on a micro level, Textio data has shown that job listings that use certain words and phrases perform better in some cities than in others. In the past, we’ve seen that jobs described as fast-paced fill faster in big cities and that the word competitive performs well in London and Sydney, but poorly in New York and L.A.

Try to consciously avoid culturally laden language, including idioms, metaphors, slang terms, and other words and phrases specific to one region or cultural identity.

3. Tech jargon and other “insider” language

Silicon Valley’s well-documented struggle to foster more diversity and inclusion can be partly attributed to the tech world’s insider language and jargon. On a list of U.S. and U.K. cities that are most guilty of using jargon in their job posts, tech capitals Seattle and San Francisco ranked first and second, respectively.

Tech firms are too often guilty of describing an ideal candidate as a ninja, rockstar, wizard, guru, jedi, or superstar in job listings. In addition to having rather specific cultural connotations, these terms all seem to require that the applicant be preternaturally gifted, or already an expert. It’s a pretty egregious use of fixed-mindset language, which emphasizes skills and abilities that are perceived as inherent characteristics. Textio data has shown that job posts that use fixed-mindset words and phrases tend to take longer to fill, and often discourage women from applying.

By contrast, tech job listings that emphasize learning fill much faster than those that don’t, and are also more likely to result in a woman being hired. Phrases like commitment to learning, love to learn, and learn new things break down some of the gatekeeping that happens in tech, while also leveraging growth-mindset language to create a better job post. According to the most recent Textio data, putting at least one growth-mindset phrase in a job description will help it fill 12% faster on average, while including two or more growth-mindset phrases will help it fill 18% faster.

4. Weak or nonexistent EEO statements

Unconscious bias in writing isn’t just revealed by the words and phrases you use, but also by the ones you don’t.

Failing to include an equal opportunity employer (EEO) statement in your job listings can be a costly oversight. In addition to the moral imperative to promote equal opportunity, Textio data has shown that candidates from all demographic groups are less likely to apply to jobs that don’t feature an EEO statement. The data also shows that listings that include even a basic equal opportunity employer statement will help fill a role 6% faster than those that don’t.

To make a stronger statement about your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, try crafting a more thoughtful and intentional EEO. Simply stating, “We are an equal opportunity employer” feels like a tossed-off disclaimer, and just listing out all of the protected classes you don’t discriminate against reads like legalese. The best EEO statements eschew boilerplate language in favor of a sincerely stated commitment to inclusion.

Consider (and if you’d like, pull from) the EEO statement that we include in all Textio job listings:

“Textio embraces diversity and equal opportunity in a serious way. We are committed to building a team that represents a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and skills. The more inclusive we are, the better our work will be.”

Ending unconscious bias in writing

It’s important to be mindful of how the language you use daily could be alienating certain groups and individuals. Yet, no matter how much research you do, there’s simply no stage of human enlightenment that will ensure you’re always fully aware of the bias baked into a term or expression.

Thankfully, you can rely on augmented writing technology. Textio can tell you as you’re writing whether your language has an implicit bias, and whether or not it will resonate in a certain region or profession. Here’s to choosing words that are powerful on purpose!

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