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Reverse-Engineering Your Job Postings – The Danger of Chasing Outcomes at All Costs


Goals matter – so does how we reach them.

Setting goals and achieving them is crucial for any business to grow. Goals push us to look inward at where we’re at and to look ahead to where we want to be. The most likely achievable goals are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-based.  

With DE&I initiatives, in particular, setting goals can be an important step in choosing a direction, forging accountability, and putting the time in to think about what it will take to accomplish. 

The question is, how far is too far when it comes to achieving those goals? When something is pursued “at all costs,” it should raise a red flag. The essence of “all costs” implies that nothing is off-limits, which is concerning when considering the human, ethical, financial, and sunk cost implications.  

If our goal is to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive work and hiring environment, how we do this is of great importance. Doing whatever it takes to fulfill quotas and meet hiring targets can involve plenty of bias and discrimination. While goals might be met, the means could be counterproductive to creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. Goals alone are not sustainable. We need to consider the means we use to reach them. 

Is reverse engineering ok?

A foundational study conducted by Duke University in conjunction with Waterloo University examined the use of gendered wording in job ads. The study found that women were less likely to apply for jobs that included male gender-coded words. Appcast recently extrapolated this research to look at 473,742 jobs advertised from August 1, 2020, through August 31, 2020. They found:

“[the original] study suggested that female-coded words in job ads have no impact on candidate application rates, while male-coded words do. Appcast Research finds that both female- and male-coded words impact application rates, as does the presence of both female- and male-coded words, as well as the absence of those words” (Appcast 2021). 

While Appcast does make clear that “job ads with gender-neutral language overwhelmingly perform best across all measures,” they do in certain industries recommend using female-coded and/or male-coded language for specific job functions to achieve the lowest CPA and the most applications per job.

The problem is, reverse engineering for outcomes is a form of bias. While achieving a balanced workforce that reflects the larger population is a critical goal, we’ll again echo how that is achieved matters. 

We warn against front-loading a job description with female-coded or male-coded words depending on the desired outcome of that specific industry. While doing this may help you reach a goal, even a noble one, sticking to consistent, inclusive practices matters more. 

Inclusion over outcomes

TalVista has gone on to conduct our own research, in line with the Waterloo-Duke research, to examine and identify wording that causes people of color and people with disabilities not to apply. Our job description optimizer has been intentionally designed to safeguard against reverse engineering. Not specifying whether flagged words are problematic for women, men, people of color, or people with disabilities allows the reviewer to make the most consciously inclusive decision regardless of the outcome. 

The truth is, you are more likely to achieve your DE&I goals while pursuing consistent and inclusive practices than you are in chasing ever-shifting goals and outcomes.