By William Hart | STC Student Member
Hiring the best candidate for a position and creating an effective onboarding process are important in any organization. Costs are incurred from the time the position is posted until a new employee is successfully onboarded and becomes productive. Yet some organizations are missing out on a large pool of potential candidates, because job descriptions and/or training documents are not inclusive and create a disconnect. Fortunately, this can be easily fixed when writers become aware of bias in technical documents and understand how to avoid it.
Recently, I became aware of technical documents creating barriers for potential candidates through bias. I say “recently” because, as a white, middle-class male, I was blind to the privilege of being able to “see myself” in every job description, training document, and technical document that I read. I had gone almost thirty years without experiencing bias in writing, but there are people who deal with this daily. Now that I am aware of my privilege, I have made it my professional goal to remove bias from technical documents, regardless of how subtle or blatant, and create an inclusive employee experience beginning the day a job is posted.
My awareness happened when my husband and I welcomed our son, Deacon, into the world September 2014. Born at 28 weeks, he was in the NICU for 97 days before he was cleared to come home. Prior to being released from the hospital, there were classes that we had to complete. One of the classes that I had to attend alone due to my husband’s schedule was a class on the importance of skin-to-skin contact, or “kangarooing.” We had been kangarooing with Deacon every chance we got, because research has shown that it helps regulate the baby’s body temperature, heart rate, and breathing. When I sat down in the class, I realized that I was the only dad that day, which wasn’t unusual. As the class went on, I realized that the booklet was not written with the assumption that a male may be the parent kangarooing. In fact, there was not a single mention of a dad in the entire book. Normally, my tendency to edit would have gotten the best of me, and I would have pulled out a pen and begun marking up this pamphlet with corrections. Instead, I assumed the book was outdated, so I flipped it over to find out that it was last edited in 2013. This was the updated edition.
At the time, my goal was to complete this class so that we could take our son home, but I could never shake the feeling that I was not the intended audience for that training. Later when I became a training specialist and then training manager, I thought about that feeling when designing curricula. I wanted to ensure that my audience, regardless of gender, race, age, or ethnicity, could see themselves in my technical writing.
When I began researching gender bias in training documents academically, I focused specifically on industries that were considered “male-dominated.” This brought me to analyzing aviation training documents posted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Women have played an integral part in aviation industry from the very beginning, but the FAA’s Aeronautical Center estimated in 2017 that women make up only seven percent of licensed pilots.
In my current research, I focus on bias in online job descriptions. Using both quantitative and qualitative analysis, several guidelines emerged that could help reduce gender bias in technical documents.
Gender Bias in Job Descriptions
Craigslist provides an interesting sample with which to analyze job ads for “male dominated” professions. Because Craigslist limits the number of postings that they edit and provides a way to advertise at little or no cost, there are a large number of samples to research that are posted directly by a hiring manager. From job postings looking for “a mechanic with his own tools” to an interest in manager candidates looking to “build his career with a great group of guys,” these job descriptions create disconnect for over half the population and perpetuate stereotypes that continue to hold several industries back because of antiquated gender roles. It is concerning what these job descriptions imply to possible candidates, but even more concerning is what they imply to other readers currently working in that profession.
When writing job descriptions:
- Use gender neutral titles and pronouns.
- Avoid aggressive language, like “destroy the competition.”
- Highlight commitment to equality and diversity, such as family-friendly benefits.
Gender Bias in Pronouns
A large percentage of aviation training documents assumed that the subject was male and used gender-specific pronouns (he, his, him, himself). There were attempts to be inclusive by using gender-neutral pronouns (his or her, he/she), but it is worth noting that a female-specific pronoun was never used independently of a male-specific pronoun, and the examples of inclusive writing were inconsistent. In the training documents, male pronouns were not limited to the description of the pilot, but other aviation professionals as well.
The Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association Style Guide, and the Modern Language Association of America Style Guide all recommend rewriting phrases when possible by using gender-neutral third-person plural pronouns (they, their, them). If this is not possible, all three recommend using the combined gender-neutral solution “he or she.”
Gender Bias in Scenarios
In some examples, bias was identified in the context of the scenario. There were several examples that mentioned the pilot’s wife—and one could argue that women pilots could also have wives—but there was not a single scenario where the pilot had a husband. There were also several examples stating that the pilot was a father and none stating that the pilot was a mother.
When creating scenarios, second-person is less likely to be biased, as long as the technical writer can maintain neutrality throughout. There were several examples where gender-specific terms could be easily replaced (e.g., by replacing “wife” with “spouse”) and the outcome of the scenario would be the same, just more inclusive.
For third-person examples, gender-specific terms are acceptable when necessary, as long as the gender specified is alternated in the document. If the first example is a male pilot, then make the second example female.
Studies have indicated that companies committed to a diverse workforce are more successful. The guidelines I identified from my research have helped me to be an inclusive technical writer and editor for others interested in eliminating bias. By considering a diverse audience and approaching authoring technical documents as inclusive, organizations can optimize their pool of potential candidates interested in joining their team. When a company mirrors the diversity found in the communities that it serves, they are better able to meet the needs of their customers. Driving connection through inclusive technical writing ensures the documents we author and edit to protect our employers’ bottom line by enabling the audience to connect with the information presented and to invest in the success of the organization.
WILLIAM HART (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently a PhD student at Fielding Graduate University, and he received his Master’s degree in Technical Communication from Minnesota State University-Mankato. His research focuses on the intersection of inclusive writing and technical documents. He currently serves as Region Training Manager for AutoNation, the country’s largest automotive retailer. William resides in Gilbert, Arizona with his husband, Billy, and son, Deacon.