We need to stop the sexist stereotyping of job titles

The sexist stereotyping of job titles leads to gendered  perceptions of jobs which is a big turn off to women 

We are constantly hearing about how the tech sector struggles to attract female candidates. Something came across my stream this week that highlighted what has to be a factor. The sexist stereotyping of job titles.

Ridiculous job titles

A network contact of mine has just been promoted to Senior Scrum Master. I’m delighted for him, but it highlights again how pervasive sexist stereotyping is within some sectors. I wonder why it’s necessary to use terminology associated with rugby which is an aggressive, physical contact sport. This is a sport usually played by men involving lots of mud, with sometimes horrible injuries. The ball somewhat bizarrely is thrown backwards. For the uninitiated in rugby, opposing teams “huddle together” in a scrum to restart the game. This is what a real scrum looks like:

sexist stereotyping of job titles

A scrum (short for scrummage) in rugby is a method of restarting play. It involves players packing closely together with their heads down and attempting to gain possession of the ball. It does not bear even a passing resemblance to any corporate situation that I (and I’m sure they) have been in. So why make out that a discussion on the way a project is going is similar to a sport associated with quotes such as these?

  • “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning is Winning!”
  • “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing”
  • “When you mess with ONE rugger, You mess with them ALL”

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Role of Scrum Master is coach and facilitator

A scrum master, I am reliably informed, is the facilitator of an agile development team. Although the scrum analogy was first applied to manufacturing in a paper by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in Japan back in 1985, the methodology is often used in project management throughout the world today over 30 years later. In product development, team members “huddle together” each morning for a stand-up meeting, where they review progress and essentially check-in and restart the project. The most strenuous thing they do is therefore not to sit down. Maybe they have to carry a coffee. I’m just guessing.

The scrum master is the team role responsible for ensuring the team adheres to agile values and principles, and follows the processes and practices agreed by the team. The role does not generally have any authority and is more of a coach in a servant-leader style, using influence rather than authority, to achieve successful outcomes. So it’s actually a collaborative and coaching role but with a super-macho competitive name. The responsibilities of this role include:

  • Removing obstacles
  • Creating an environment to promote team effectiveness
  • Dealing with team dynamics
  • Maintaining good relationship between the team and the product owners and other stakeholders
  • Acting as a buffer in the event of interruptions and distractions.

Alternative names

Merriam Wester defines scrum as:

  • a physical dispute between opposing individuals or groups
  • a great number of persons or creatures massed together

Perhaps the thought of calling it a project huddle, cuddle, circle, pod, herd, bustle or any other synonym was seen to be less masculine and therefore considered to be more girlie.

It’s not a question of what were they thinking, but did they think at all? But more importantly why are we holding on to terminology from the 1980s in a 21st century office environment?

A deeper problem

This notion of male coded and sexist stereotyping of job titles actually highlights a deeper problem.  Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on gender-coded wording in job advertisements, suggests that subtle gender bias in the language used in job adverts and in the workplace, acts as a deterrent to women. It can discourage many women from applying for roles in the first place and then contributing to them feeling excluded and then leaving.  The research from the University of Waterloo and Duke University found that job ads for positions in engineering and other male-dominated professions used male coded, words such as “leader,” “competitive” and “dominant.” That is even before they start calling them Ninja, Scrum Master, Guru, or other. Adverts describing roles in female-associated professions such as administration and HR… didn’t.

Researchers found that while male-dominated fields tended to use more masculine words in job listings, female-dominated fields didn’t use more feminine words. Job ads in female-dominated professions tended to be more neutral. In simple terms, women are put off by the use of male-gendered language.

Sexist job titles impact retention

Sexist job titles reflect the type the culture of an organisation. Research published by the Harvard Business Review suggests that 52% women  in scientific and tech fields quit their jobs, never to return. Subtle and less subtle forms of institutional bias, of which sexist job titles play a role contribute to nudging women out of male dominated sectors. Participants in the Waterloo and Duke research were also asked to rate their ability to perform the job advertised. Wording did not affect women’s perception of their ability to perform the job, only their perception of the job’s appeal and their level of belongingness. Women rank feminine-worded listings higher in both appeal and “belongingness.” Men ranked feminine-worded listings slightly lower in appeal and just as high in belongingess.

Fixing the language of job titles and job listings won’t solve the problem, if the culture doesn’t change as well. But sexist job titles reflect a workplace culture. What we should also ask ourselves with the “Scrum Master” title why we need to beef-up a collaborative and coaching roles into one with strongly and unnecessary masculine overtones.

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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