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Avoiding Bias in Software Job Ads

Many technology businesses are trying to do the right thing by hiring for diversity. I’ve seen a few examples of job ads from companies who clearly have so little experience writing job ads, or spend so little time thinking about what the ad is saying, that they end up offending their target readership.

If you want to attract the right people to your business, you have to be the kind of business that those people would be proud to work for. Attention to detail in a job ad, especially in software development, is at least as important as attention to detail in a CV/resume. It’s important to pay attention to gender, sexual orientation, and culture in your job description.

Fill your ad full of detail, but keep it neutral.

You want to have an ad that gives all the important details about your company and about the available position. To keep this brief, I am going to assume that you have spent loads of time making sure the work environment is someplace people want to be. You will want to tell potential hires about the things that make your company special. Spend some time talking about culture.

Also take the time to write about the kind of person you see in the position you’d like to fill. What sort of personality would best fit your company? What kind of approach to problem-solving would be the best fit for your team? If your team spend time together outside of work, talk about it. Talk about your product or your clients. The important thing is to provide plenty of detail about who you are, where you would like to be, and who you think could help you get there. You may overlook some details, but if you describe your needs accurately, the right person may just figure out what is missing and fill in the gaps.

If you are already using a particular software stack, then certainly mention it, but no one wants to read a list of technologies packaged as a job ad. If your goal is to solve a problem, then describe your problem and let the experts figure out whether they are a good match.

The same rule also applies to other aspects of the person you want to hire. Keep your ad neutral by avoiding bias and the best applicants will select themselves.

Avoid gender bias.

Specifying gender in your job ad is tantamount to specifying race, age, or religion in your ad, and should be avoided at all costs. There is practically no way you can write a gender-specific job ad without stereotyping people, so this practice is best avoided.

Don’t assume things about your target readership. For example, talking about someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife is a big no-no unless you include every permutation and give them all equal billing in your ad (or resort to “spouse” or “partner”). Since that can end up being unreadable, I suggest you keep the ad copy gender-neutral.

It’s also worth noting that gender is a very fuzzy concept and cannot be determined by biology. Many of us have put our foot in it at some point in interviews with people who present (to us) as one gender, but identify as another. The best rule I can think of for avoiding embarrassment is to look at how the applicants refer to themselves and use their own terms when talking about them. Fortunately for hiring managers, people with non-obvious gender identity are used to people struggling a bit, so any effort tends to be appreciated.

Be aware of cultural bias, especially in religious traditions.

What is normal for you may not be normal for someone else. You can expect people to adapt to many things to fit in, but religious traditions involve fundamental beliefs and should be respected. Among other things, these traditions affect how people dress, what they eat, and their need for personal time during the day and evenings and weekends.

For example, don’t assume that everyone considers the consumption of alcohol to be a bonus. The “fridge fully stocked with beer” line may be entirely appropriate to my culture (and socialisation), but every time I read it, I cringe inwardly on behalf of the vast numbers of people who find the notion unwelcoming or offensive.

Avoid language bias.

Being too specific about language can appear unwelcoming for people who are not native to your area. Advertise native proficiency in a language only when it’s really required by the job: “good” or “very good” is usually enough. If language is going to be a problem, it will become evident in your communication during the application process.

Let’s not talk about sex (in professional settings).

Finally, assuming things about the reader’s sexual orientation should be avoided at all costs, and any discussion of sexual orientation or preference should be avoided. I have seen very few job descriptions where sexual preference was at all relevant, and you’ll probably know if the position you’re advertising is the exception.

Let me know what you think!

I’d love to hear about your experiences reading and writing job ads. Do you think these criteria cover enough cases, or is something missing? Maybe my list is too long? Please let me know what you think by commenting below.

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