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Nerf battle of the sexes

True story: I’m sitting in a team meeting and listening to our new boss tell us what he’s all about. “I’m super into golf and tennis,” he tells us. “I like basically any kind of competition. In fact, that leads me to one important thing I’m gonna change about this place. Effective immediately, Nerf guns for everyone!!!”

And then he reaches under the table and pulls out this crazy foam dart blaster thing and goes to town. For a magnificent forty-five seconds, the room is an extravaganza of Nerf. There are foam darts on the table and on the floor and on our laptop keyboards. It is Nerf nirvana.

That guy didn’t last very long as our boss, but during his brief tenure, our 25 person team lost eight people. Seven were women. After he left, the remaining 17 people included just two women.

Guidance for writing tech job ads has often suggested that mentions of Nerf, foosball, and ping-pong alienate female job seekers. I thought back to my old boss when I saw that Textio flagged Nerf gun, Nerf battle, and related phrases as significantly driving down the proportion of women who will apply for a job. Stuff like:

“Appreciation for ping pong and Nerf guns is a bonus.”

“Familiarity with standard office protocols for Nerf warfare.”

“Studio-issued Nerf weaponry.”

“Free food, hackathons, ample stockpiles of nerf darts, nuff said….”

In fact, job listings that highlight Nerf aggression score an average of 87% more male-biased than listings that do not — for reasons that go well beyond Nerf.

How come? Let’s look at some of the other language that occurs in these tech job listings:

“We celebrate our successes with a scotch toast at our Friday meetings.”

“You will be paid well now and have more upside when you crush it.”

“You have a super-hero alter-ego, solar-powered backpack, and enough T-shirts to make up a full wardrobe.”

“We guarantee an awkward celebration of your birthday.”

“Every day at 11am our whole team enjoys a mandatory six-minute ab workout.”

Guess what? Many of these phrases are themselves highly predictive; listings that contain them draw disproportionately few women to apply. These job listings are also over 700% less likely to contain an equal opportunity statement.

People are remarkably attuned to the language you use in your job posting and what it says about your culture. They spend just a few seconds scanning your listing to decide whether to engage further. In this quick scan, they are 45% more likely to notice phrases that repel them than phrases that draw them in.

Removing the Nerf military from your job listing won’t suddenly make your company a great place for women to work. But if you’re a tech company trying to hire more women, it’s worth knowing that including these terms significantly reduces the number of women who will even consider applying in the first place.

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