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How reframing flexible working can drive up female recruitment

  • Blog
  • 19th Jun 2024

Women are more likely to take a career break for various reasons, with the most common being full-time parenting. However, re-entering the workforce after an extended absence can be challenging.

It is widely recognised that flexible work is one of the most important factors in helping women return to work, often due to ongoing caregiving responsibilities. Many women will only consider employers who offer such flexibility.

Although the number of job ads featuring flexible options has increased in recent years, the presentation of this information may be undermining its impact, especially when aiming to attract women returning after a career break.

BIT conducted research in partnership with the National Careers Institute (NCI) in the Australian Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to understand the careers information and support needs of women in their mid- to late-careers

We ran an innovative online trial that simulated women’s experience of searching for jobs online. Our aim was to test ways of advertising flexible work that were attractive for women looking to return to work.

The current problem with flexible work descriptions in job-ads

Our previous trials have shown that promoting flexible work makes job ads more attractive to job seekers, particularly women. 

In a field trial with over 20 million participants we found that employers attracted up to 30% more candidates when they advertised flexible conditions. We also found that employers who included part-time working options as a default when advertising roles boosted applications from women by 16%.

However, today job ads often include vague generic offers of flexible work (e.g. “we offer flexible work”). Without specific flexible conditions on offer, women returners are less likely to apply for jobs which they may be well suited for. 

Vague offers put the onus on the applicant to clarify or negotiate the specific flexible work conditions they require, which can feel onerous and intimidating. Such requests can also be met with resistance from employers

As a result, job ads are failing to promote suitable opportunities to women returners, and employers are drawing from a smaller pool of potential candidates.

Trialling how employers could better communicate flexible work opportunities

We aimed to expand the existing evidence by testing how descriptions of flexible work in job ads impact the number of women returners applying. 

We conducted an online trial with 460 current and recent women returners that simulated their experience of searching for available roles on an online job board, such as Seek. 

Women returners repeatedly chose from pairs of job ad summaries, which looked similar except for the way that flexible work was framed. 

We tested six different flexible work framings:

  1. None: a statement unrelated to flexible work was included to serve as baseline.
  2. Basic: “We offer flexible work”
  3. Request: “Flexible work available on request”
  4. Caregiver: “We support parents and caregivers with flexible work options”
  5. Specific: “This is a flexible position – you choose your days, hours and location (office, remote, hybrid)”
  6. Specific + culture: “We offer our staff the freedom to decide their own work/life balance – set your own work days, hours and location (office, remote, hybrid)”

Example of job ad summaries from the trial. The first dot point in the first job ad is a “Specific” flexible work statement, while the other statements are irrelevant to flexible work, and randomised across ads and participants. The second job ad displays an example of the “None” condition, as none of the dot points relate to the availability of flexible work.

Result: Women returners preferred job ads with specific, culture-related framings 

Job ads that included specific information about what flexible work meant and included company endorsement of work/life balance significantly outperformed job ads that included a basic flexible work statement (“we offer flexible work”). 

Women returners were three times more likely to choose the specific, culture-related framing over the basic one. 

Notably, we also found that including a ‘request’ statement (“flexible work being available on request”) was just as off-putting to female applicants as having no flexible work statement at all. 

Employers should rethink how flexible work is advertised when recruiting

Career breaks can lead to an erosion of job skills, lost confidence and diminished professional networks. Women returners must overcome these barriers while taking on the lion’s share of household and familial caring duties. Unfortunately, these challenges stack up over time – the longer the career break, the greater the challenges and the less likely women are to return to work at all

Our trial shows that small tweaks in how flexible work is framed can help overcome the barriers women face when returning to the workforce. 

Effective framing can make the difference between attracting a diverse pool of candidates and unintentionally causing a potential candidate to disregard the job advert altogether.

We recommend that employers write job adverts with specific details about what flexibility means for the advertised role and include signals of a supportive workplace culture. 

Of course, framing is no silver bullet; it is just one technique from the evidence-based toolkit of behavioural insights. Similarly, flexible work is only one aspect of job adverts that candidates – including women returners – consider.

If you are looking to increase the effectiveness of your job ads and broaden the diversity of your talent pool, get in touch with us to see how behavioural insights can make your efforts more effective.