Blog: boost diversity by removing hidden bias from job ads

Employers can take a number of measures to boost diversity, including addressing hidden bias in job adverts writes EngineeringUK chief executive Dr Hilary Leevers

This month marks the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science so it’s timely to highlight an interesting project that one of EngineeringUK’s corporate members has just completed to address their gender imbalance in recruiting engineers.

Openreach, which is a major national employer of engineers, analysed the impact of hidden biases in the language used in its job adverts.

Their research showed that language plays a fundamental role in the recruitment process.

The team created a new, consciously unbiased, job description for the company’s entry level engineering role – with the language of the new advert carefully crafted to appeal to men and women equally, whilst actively combating some of the challenges females face in the pre-application phase.

In order to help understand and explore the impact of the language shift, the new wording was tested against the original advert, which also included the word engineer and referred to Openreach, with 2,000 women of working age in the UK. The findings show that a third of women (31%) felt the original advert was more suited to a man than a woman, compared with just 13% of women for the new advert.

Importantly, the language used also affected how interested women in the study were in the role themselves, with 12% more interested in the conventionally worded advert as compared with 50% more interested in the gender-inclusive advert, and most said that this was because they liked the way it was written.

Despite four in five (80%) women admitting they wouldn’t consider working in engineering, more than half (56%) were interested in the engineering job role once it had been reimagined.

Until we have systemically corrected the misconceptions around engineering and who might become an engineer, the pragmatic response is to do all that we can to attract the diverse workforce we need

Over half of women surveyed are considering the possibility of a new career as a result of the pandemic. And looking at young people, our own research has found worrying indications that the pandemic has intensified existing gender differences in STEM career aspirations. So there hasn’t been a better time to break down barriers to recruitment and it’s more important than ever that we get this type of outreach activity right.

I am a firm believer in stripping out gender loaded words and phrases in job adverts, but I have to admit, I’m disappointed that the word engineer is dropped too. I’d hope that women and men would be able to see past the label – which we know has misconceptions around it – to the role being offered. But, until we have systemically corrected the misconceptions around engineering and who might become an engineer, the pragmatic response is to do all that we can to attract the diverse workforce we need.

Openreach’s commitment to review, learn from and improve their own practices in this area is highly commendable and should inspire the rest of the community. We also appreciate the extent to which they have shared their findings so that the sector as a whole can benefit. We know that there is much insight out there that can help us all to improve our practice, and we’ve been gathering it together to make it easier for organisations to learn from each other.

We have just launched the new Tomorrow’s Engineers  website that brings together free advice and guidance, curated from across the engineering community, to support those wishing to inspire the next generation of diverse engineers.

The website includes the latest thinking on a range of topics, from how to run virtual events and top tips for ensuring an inclusive approach, to how to survey young people and improve outreach activities.

And the refreshed site is full to brim with resources to help practitioners show that engineering can give young people the opportunities they need and want – job availability and security alongside careers with enormous societal value, which are critical in responding to global challenges. The section on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion aims to help with the design, delivery, targeting and evaluation of activities that are engaging for a broad and diverse audience.

hidden bias
Image: metamorwork via

These resources are a starting point as we will be updating and improving them over time, and we ask that those involved in engineering engagement help us. Please recommend resources for inclusion on the Tomorrow’s Engineers website and say what other topics you would like to see covered on the site by responding to the content survey. There’s also the opportunity to share insights or guidance which you think could help us all.

We want to provide a hub for the whole engineering community to share their learnings so that together we can achieve the collective impact needed to see more and more diverse young people entering engineering careers. Together, we can inspire future generations and give them the opportunity to become an engineer. And I very much hope that in the near future, the word engineer will feature prominently in all relevant job adverts, being highly attractive and equally associated with women, men and people from all backgrounds.

Dr Hilary Leevers is chief executive of EngineeringUK