Inclusive Job Postings: The Bias Of Skill-Based Hiring

I have two best friends from college that I text almost every day. That group chat is where we go to talk shit, ask questions we don’t want to Tweet to the world, and vent about people on social media. Next to therapy, it’s up there in my list of things that help my brain. Last week, our group chat lit up when one of them sent a screenshot of a Facebook conversation. A stranger had responded to her post with something along the lines of “they throw like a girl.”

My friend, who happens to be a girl, responded politely that she knows a lot of girls who are great baseball players. This started the typical Facebook argument where we had to get into the absolutes of the Internet. It fascinates me how something that’s obviously true – that there are, in fact, great female baseball players – becomes such a point of argument when you put keyboards between two people.

“This is a boy’s insult,” he said. “No matter how good your sister is. Boy to boy insult.” My friend wisely walked away from this digital encounter and entered the group chat to vent her frustration. “It’s 9 AM and I’m ready to fight a man,” she said. Rightfully so, I responded. This gendering is obnoxious, and not just when it happens on Facebook.

Skills Don’t Have Universal Meanings

I have the same reaction when I see all of these AI tools that pretend to decode gender. Decoding gender is a big aspiration for any tool, let alone these glorified databases that just sort words into “boy words” and “girl words” then count them up and pretend they’re helping people. They’re just assigning genders to different code words and calling it AI.

I have two big issues with this. One, who made the database and assigned a gender to each word? I mean – who says women can’t be confident? Who says men can’t be empathetic? Two, as someone who’s non-binary, this gendered coding takes us backwards in the attempt to remove bias from job postings. We’re literally coding cis binaries into the post and then hoping for a less biased and inclusive outcome. That math isn’t working for me.

Now, with all due respect, some tools have helped to drive different pipelines. There’s research that shows a female coded post has driven more female applicants and vice versa.

Describe Experiences, Not Buzzwords To Remove Gender Bias

The biggest problem of all? No one talks about how a tool swapping out keywords can change the meaning. That’s the real problem behind this content and the bias it brings. The meaning of skills are not universal. If I asked a room full of people to tell me what words like “collaborative” mean, they’d all have different definitions. A collaborative team player at Three Ears Media and one at another company that’s highly structured and relies on constant meetings and buy in might behave entirely differently.

Recruiting at each company with the keyword collaborative without context means people don’t actually know what you mean. Skills-based hiring is universally biased in that sense – it is always based off of 1 person’s understanding of the skill’s meaning. But experiences? The things you actually do to showcase that you have specific skills? Those are far more universal. If you actually want to make your posts less biased when it comes to gender, stop relying on skills-based hiring and start talking about experiences. Here are a few examples of sharing experiences instead of skills.

  • You say analytical. What you really mean is: “We’re looking for someone who notices trends in large data sets quickly and can present highly technical data to non-technical executive staff in simple ways. You know how to explain technical concepts in PowerPoint presentations.”
  • Collaborative team player. You think you’ll stand out but that phrase alone has over 18,000 mentions in job postings live right now. Instead, say something like: “You’ll work on a team of 3 marketers who are experienced in architecture. You’ll host weekly team meetings and bring an agenda that helps us not only understand what work needs to be done but how we work together. You have led a team of 5 or more before and know how to manage conflict and inspire new ideas.”
  • Flexible can mean a lot of things. Instead, say something like: “You’ve worked on a team where priorities have changed and you know how to adjust expectations and workload to align with new focus areas at a moment’s notice.”
  • A startup’s marketing rockstar is another industry’s marketing nightmare. Can you say “risk assessment”?

If you’re looking to create a less biased job post, don’t start by using technology that’s just swapping out skill keywords. Instead, start describing experiences this person has had that would qualify them for the job. Get so specific that anyone can answer “yes, I did that” or “no, I didn’t” after reading your requirements. Help people understand the work and give more people access to jobs. That’s how we make a more equitable world of work starting with a more inclusive job post.

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Kat Kibben View All →

Kat Kibben [they/them] is a keynote speaker, writing expert, and LGBTQIA+ advocate who teaches hiring teams how to write inclusive job postings that will get the right person to apply faster.

Before founding Three Ears Media, Katrina was a CMO, Technical Copywriter, and Managing Editor for leading companies like Monster,, and Randstad Worldwide. With 15+ years of recruitment marketing and training experience, Katrina knows how to turn talented recruiting teams into talented writers who write for people, not about work.

Today, Katrina is frequently featured as an HR and recruiting expert in publications like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Forbes. They’ve been named to numerous lists, including LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Job Search & Careers. When not speaking, writing, or training, you’ll find Katrina traveling the country in their van or spending some much needed downtime with the dogs that inspired the name Three Ears Media.

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