A few words about the word ‘strong’

StrongGood copywriters justify every word they use.

Every. Single. One.

As you may know, I started my copywriting career in the catalogue industry, where every inch of space cost money, and each word had to battle for its place on the page.

(Yes, I said ‘inch’. Because that’s how old I am.)

Here are some thoughts about just one word.

Strong.

A job ad for a manager might well include a request for ‘strong leadership skills’.

At a time when gender equality is back at the top of the agenda (and rightly so), the problem is that the word ‘strong’ can be perceived as a male word, and so filter out female applicants.

By the way, ‘strong’ doesn’t only mean muscular – although that’s often the ‘go to’  understanding. Of course, women are strong too, in our own way. In emotional resilience, for example.

Strong definition

And it’s not the only word that could be seen as divisive. It seems the words ‘challenge’ and ‘analyse’ also read as masculine, while the words ‘support’ and ‘empathy’ read as feminine.

I’m not making this up.

The evidence

You might be interested in this report from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (first published 2011). If you don’t want to read the science bit, jump to the masculine and feminine word lists at the end: Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality.

A Hewlett Packard internal report found that men willingly apply for jobs even when they are only 60% qualified; while women only apply when they are 100% qualified. There’s an interesting analysis of the findings in this Harvard Business Review article.

I know Dr Lynda Shaw through the Professional Speaking Association. She was on TV recently, talking about the gender pay gap and unconscious bias, and shared this review. There’s a bit about language, and about recruiters favouring male candidates whether consciously or unconsciously.

Useful tools

There is a Chrome extension that recruiters can use called Unbias – it anonymises LinkedIn profiles and searches to reduce the influence of unconscious bias.

Artificial Intelligence is also creeping into the copywriting world, and there is Gender Decoder that recruiters can run their copy through to assess the balance of male v female language they’ve used.

Although there are useful AI tools to inspire blog headlines, for example, I’m not usually a fan of automation like this; I prefer to use my own brain. After all, that’s what clients pay me for.

Getting a good brief

If you don’t want to fall into bad habits, what should you do?

Well, you can’t write good copy without getting a good brief.

I learned this early. When I was about 13, adults were forever asking me what I wanted to do when I grew up. Maybe you had the same experience?

Anyway, I told my mum’s friend that I wanted to be a writer, and she gave me a competition to enter. I had to write about Zaire, formerly the French and Belgian Congo, and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I knew nothing about the place, but, happily, she also gave me a National Geographic magazine featuring the country.

The magazine content inspired my story, and I won the competition.In fact, they didn’t even award a second or third prize because they said no other entry came close.

Obviously, there was no Internet, no Google, and no Wikipedia back then. Without that magazine to use as research material, I wouldn’t have known how the landscape looked, what people might have been called, and what their lifestyle was like. And my story would have been unrealistic. All made up. Rubbish.

So, if a hiring manager specifically asks for strong leadership skills, the recruiter’s job is to find out why. Let’s imagine a scenario.

Hiring Manager: “The candidates must have strong leadership skills.”

Recruiter: “Why do you say that?”

Hiring Manager: “Because there are some difficult characters in the team.”

Recruiter: “Tell me more…”

Hiring Manager: “Well, Sharon thinks she knows it all, while Nigel never goes home on time which means he overworks and gets ill then has loads of time off sick.”

Recruiter (thinks): “Aha! Now I know what to write in the ad.”

Instead of asking for clichéd ‘strong leadership skills’, the ad can then explain the situation (probably without naming names, in this case). Before they apply, people can then work out for themselves whether or not they could handle it.

This specificity also guides the interview process. For example:

Interviewer: “What would you do if you had a member of staff who never goes home on time which means he overworks and gets ill then has loads of time off sick?”

Good applicant: [Suggests creative leadership ideas]

Bad applicant: [Hasn’t got a clue]

Final thought

The other problem is that no job is going to ask for ‘weak’ leadership skills. So adding the adjective ‘strong’ is pointless.

Do you agree?

P.S. By the way, I don’t write job ads. I do work with Mitch Sullivan to train recruiters how to write better job ads themselves. Find out more

P.P.S. Male language is pervasive in our culture. I (consciously) used the word ‘battle’ in the introduction to this article. Did you notice? As it’s from military origin – a field which is still predominantly male – it could be argued that ‘battle’ is also a word that could ‘turn off’ female readers.

P.P.P.S. Of course, I’m talking about the English language here. The nuances are even more complex in languages where words themselves are gendered.

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