Words have power.

Our recent national conversations around racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination make that abundantly clear. Our words can make others feel lesser, feel hated, feel ignored. It doesn't mean we need to become "politically correct," it just means that we should pay more attention to what our words are actually saying.

Some phrasing is so ingrained that we don't even realize the bias in it. That's a big part of why Amazon and Microsoft veterans Kieran Snyder and Jensen Harris teamed up to create Textio, which parses language to find phrasing that unintentionally attracts or repels women or men. It goes further than that, however, and can tell you overall whether or not your listing will attract more or fewer candidates than the average, and why.

Right now, much of the public focus of Textio has been on jobs in the tech sector, as that industry's gender issues are well documented. But the tool can be (and is being) used on job listings from a great variety of industries.

A few months back, Textio published its list of 10 companies in Silicon Valley that have the most gender-neutral job listings. They're back, this time with a list of 10 companies in the New York-Boston corridor, and they let us have an early peek.

To really get a feel for how the platform works, I chose one of their top 10 companies at random (Etsy) and went to the company's jobs page. I chose one job listing at random--for a Dublin-based Web director and ran it through Textio. What I found is that what makes a job listing perform well tends to go beyond gender.

Remember, words have power.

Among the positive elements in this listing was the use of verbs. "Your listing uses a lot of verbs. Listings with verbs usually offer more detailed information about responsibilities on the job, which causes more people to apply."

Boom. That's useful information for anyone looking to hire anyone. Of course, certain phrasing may appeal more to people seeking one type of job than another. But wouldn't it be good to know that more people (note: more people, not more women) are attracted to apply for a job when you're more specific?

Something else I noted about that--if you work to make your job listing more appealing to more people, you're also really thinking about what and who you're looking for. You're more likely to find the right person for the job if you put more thought into the listing and figure out what it is you actually want.

And make no mistake--this is about gender-neutral job listings, not substituting bias against women with bias against men.

"Textio doesn't judge," founder and CEO Kieran Snyder told me in an email. "Just as we work with tech companies that need to hire more women, we also talk to recruiters in health care or retail or education who need to hire more men."

The Etsy job listing was ranked and graded on a variety of levels. First, the initial Textio score was 93 out of 100, meaning it was judged to be more effective than 93 percent of other job listings for similar jobs. That simply means it's more likely to attract the right candidates, regardless of gender. Among the reasons for the rating:

  • It uses positive and encouraging language, making job-seekers more likely to continue reading.
  • The length is just about right--maybe a little more than optimal, but still OK. In other words, not too long and not too short.
  • It balances "we" and "you" statements--too many "we" statements about your company and not enough "you" about the job-seeker (or the other way around) can be a turn-off.
  • It makes strong use of active language--passive language is a turn-off.
  • It makes appropriate use of adjectives--surprise, the lower the better. If you use too much flowery prose, it doesn't really tell people what they need to know. In journalism school, this fell under the headline of "show, don't tell."
  • It makes strong use of verbs--as noted earlier, nice, strong verbs actually help tell the job-seeker what you're looking for.

Negative aspects to the posting were then outlined:

  • It uses corporate clichés. Though the listing only used one, Textio highlights when there are any, since fewer people tend to apply to jobs when the posting uses too much business jargon.
  • It's missing an equal opportunity statement. Textio's research has shown that when the statement is included with the job listing, engagement with the listing and applications through the listing increase.

Textio also broke out which types of words in the listing were negative--likely to decrease the number of candidates applying; positive--likely to increase the number applying; repetitive--used often in the listing; masculine--listings with these words tend to have a larger than average number of men applying; and feminine--listings with these words tend to have a larger than average number of women applying.

Finally, a little chart with a blue guy on the left and a pink girl on the right showed where along the spectrum the listing fell. This listing had language more heavily weighted toward women, while the majority of postings for similar jobs are weighted toward men. If your goal is to attract more women, a posting such as this would be useful. But that also had nothing to do with the overall score of 93, Snyder said.

"Score is totally unrelated to bias," she explained. "Score is about the listing's bottom-line metrics: how fast will the role fill, how many people will apply, how many will be qualified. It's possible to get a high score and still be very biased. Also possible to have a listing that isn't biased but also doesn't attract anyone good."

I know you're dying to know, already, what companies in the New York-Boston corridor have the most gender-neutral job listings, so I won't torture you any longer. They are listed alphabetically, and not in order of ranking, and their career pages are linked:

I asked Snyder for some examples of phrases that work better than others:

  • Don't use: "call the shots." Use: "decide"
  • Don't use: "explosive growth." Use: "rapid growth"
  • Don't use: "make a killing." Use: "succeed in a huge way"
  • Don't use: "single-minded." Use: "focused"

A quick glance at those, and it makes perfect sense. The "use" choices actually say a lot more about what's needed than the "don't use." The latter are far less precise. Use your words right.