An employee assists a customer beside a display of smartphones at a mobile phone store inside the Vodacom World mall, operated by Vodacom Group Ltd., in the Midrand district of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. Vodacom, which is 65 percent owned by Newbury, England-based Vodafone and the South African market leader by subscriber numbers, is expanding its internet offering to offset falling voice revenue. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
Vodafone hired more women after changing job ads © Bloomberg

“Seeking outstanding individuals with a passion for mission-critical technology to help on our aggressive journey to improve our premier network and create synergy.”

Until recently, this male-orientated wording was how Vodafone would advertise for a cloud service operations engineer. Now, the telecoms company scans every job posting to check for and correct gender bias in order to encourage women to apply for the job.

The same ad would currently read more like: “Seeking extraordinary individuals with a real passion for critical technology to help on our bold journey to improve our top-tier network and help create alignment.” Rephrasing job ads increased the number of women Vodafone recruited by 7 per cent during a three-month trial last year.

It is one of several strategies tech companies are adopting to boost their appeal to women. In the US, females comprised only a quarter of the tech workforce in 2015, while in the UK the proportion was just 17 per cent.

Some tech companies are attempting to correct the imbalance with measures such as training staff in unconscious bias awareness, deleting gender from CVs, insisting that shortlists include women, improving referral incentives, introducing retraining programmes for returners, enhancing maternity rights and showcasing female role models on social media. Changing job adverts is a small but effective part of the push to change the industry’s gender balance.

Vodafone job descriptions had a lot of jargon, abbreviations and macho language, says Catalina Schveninger, the company’s global head of resourcing and employer brand. In the pilot, words such as “win”, “kick”, “aggressive”, “premier” and “outstanding” were replaced with “bold”, “improve”, “top-tier” and “extraordinary”.

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The company was so pleased with the trial that job post screening for gender bias is being implemented across the UK, the US, India and several other English-speaking countries. Vodafone is even removing the phrase “competitive salary” from its job posts.

“We thought this phrase would attract a lot of candidates,” Ms Schveninger says. “But apparently it is putting women off. They don’t care whether they’re making more money than others — they just want to be treated fairly.”

Debbie Forster, chief executive of Tech Talent Charter — a UK initiative whose signatories promote the employment of women — agrees male-orientated job descriptions deter women. They often ask for “ninjas” and “techies”, she says. “Not a lot of women I know would describe themselves as a ‘ninja’. They get the impression that they would just be walking into a boys’ club.”

To help screen its advertisements, Vodafone uses software from Washington-based Textio, which analyses 10m job posts and outcomes every month to spot patterns and identify trends.

Kieran Snyder, Textio’s chief executive, says ads for people to “manage” teams typically appeal more to men. “If you ask for someone to ‘develop’ a team you tend to attract a higher proportion of women. Asking for someone to ‘lead’ a team attracts a mix of men and women.”

Advertising for people who are “high -powered”, “experts”, “results-driven” or “action-oriented” is also more likely to yield men, says Ms Forster. “Even very highly qualified women are less likely to think of themselves in this way.

“If a man thinks he has half of the requirement in a job description he’ll go for it. But women typically won’t apply if they can’t fulfil 90 per cent-plus of the job description. It’s a confidence issue.”

Women are particularly resistant to jargon, says Ms Snyder, even widely used business words such as “synergy” or “stakeholder”. “These phrases reflect a male corporate culture,” she says. Nor do women like bullet lists. “If more than half the job post is bullets, you start seeing a rapid decline in the proportion of women applying for the role.”

However, George Brasher, managing director of HP UK and Ireland, says rewording job descriptions is not enough. “We need to attract at least 50 per cent females to stay innovative.”

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The IT group is rolling out a global programme to make managers involved in hiring aware of unconscious bias. It highlights how their decisions may be based on factors such as whether female applicants are wearing make-up and perfume, have grey hair, how they are dressed or whether they are wearing a wedding ring.

The aim is to make interviewers understand how they view and respond to candidates, says Mr Brasher. “By raising awareness, we hope they will make different and better decisions to ensure we are hiring the best people.” The training was piloted in the US and Europe and generated strong positive feedback from participants.

Vodafone is asking its interviewers to focus more on facts, skills and quantifiable data than what they feel or believe about a candidate. “By forcing the panels to be more structured we are limiting the bias,” says Ms Schveninger.

Other measures tech companies are adopting include improved maternity leave, appointing more women to senior roles and using social media to publicise these, as well as trying to attract women who have been on career breaks. They are also “blinding” CVs, so that recruiters do not know the name and sex of applicants.

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Vodafone is testing the idea of requiring shortlists to include at least two women, especially for senior roles. “In the past, we specified one woman per shortlist, but research shows this actually puts the woman in a tougher position and she tends to get edged out by the men,” says Ms Schveninger. “With two women, the chances that one of them gets the job improve by 50 per cent.”

Vodafone’s goal is to increase the global representation of women in management and leadership roles worldwide to 30 per cent by 2020 — up from 28 per cent in March 2017. The group has also doubled its rewards for staff who introduce female employees.

HP’s board, at 40 per cent female, is the most diverse among US tech companies, while women represent 37 per cent of the company’s global workforce. In the UK more than half of HP’s interns are women — a ratio it says it will maintain. HP has also told its lawyers, advertising and public relations agencies to meet staff diversity requirements or face penalties.

SAS, an analytics company, encourages female staff to visit local schools, communities and businesses to urge girls to choose careers in science and technology. Some 600 of the company’s 14,000 staff globally have signed up.

This article has been amended. George Brasher is managing director of HP UK and Ireland, rather than of Hewlett-Packard UK and Ireland.

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