‘Masculine’ language in job adverts deterring female candidates, research finds

Study reveals that applications from women dropped by 10 per cent for roles that used male-coded words

‘Masculine' job adverts deter women from applying for them, according to new research, as less than half of women have chosen to apply for vacancies which use male-coded language.

Analysis of more than 7,500 job adverts, conducted by the hiring platform Applied, ran the wording of each advert through a gender score calculator – a tool which detects feminine-coded language (such as together, collaborate, responsibility and share) and masculine words (such as individual, challenging and driven) – to score the text accordingly. 

The report found that adverts using strong masculine language saw the number of female candidates applying for the role drop by up to 10 per cent), with less than half (44 per cent) applying for those positions.

But, when employers reduced the occurrences of masculine-coded words and replaced them with feminine-coded or neutral words, the proportion of female applicants was projected to increase up to 54 per cent, according to the research. 

Applied also analysed a sample of 3,200 closed or archived vacancies and said that the use of feminine or neutral language in a job description not only increased the number of female applicants, but also meant a woman was more likely to be offered the job. 

It found that more than half (55 per cent) of successful hires were women, while just over a third (36 per cent) were men.

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“This research highlights the importance of using bias-free and inclusive language in job ads to ensure organisations are attracting a diverse range of candidates,” said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD.

He added that there needed to be consistency in recruitment selection processes where candidates are fairly compared and assessed.

"Interview questions and tests should be relevant to the job and organisations should ensure there is transparency about the recruitment and interview process, and the criteria used to select candidates,” Willmott explained. 

Bailey Bell, psychologist at Pearn Kandola, also highlighted that “where you see the use of masculine-gendered language, this can influence the way in which candidates are evaluated”.

He explained that stereotypically masculine traits do not align with the stereotypical view of women so some recruiters automatically think ‘man’ where they see masculine language within the job description and rating criteria.

To combat this, research has found that it helps to present job requirements in behavioural terms, Bell said. 

“Rather than asking for a candidate that is analytical, [firms] should ask for somebody who can analyse data,” he advised. “While people may not describe themselves as analytical or may see that as a more masculine trait, people will likely be able to call on examples where they have analysed data.” 

A job advert also gives more of an insight into a company culture for candidates than you may think, according to Jamie Forrester, founder and director of Diverse Talent Search. 

“It's highly likely that if your company job [specifications] favour and are more attractive to men, then your company culture and working environment is likely to be the same,” he said. 

Forrester suggested that not reacting or showing any desire to use more neutral language shows a lack of awareness which is noted by female candidates. 

For HR managers organising job vacancies, he advised that job descriptions should be short, informative and gender-neutral, as well as including an overview of the team, the role and the company. 

“Forget the long wishlists with 20 bullet points and work with your hiring managers to define four to six key responsibilities and skills,” he said. “Women tend to apply for jobs where they meet 80-100 per cent, so adding those extra requirements could be preventing you from hiring the women you need.”

Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality director at Business in the Community, added that not only does masculine language in job descriptions deter women, it undermines women’s chances of getting jobs even if they do apply. 

She argued that this was particularly important because vacancies in the UK are at an all-time high, but women’s employment levels have been dragged down by the pandemic. 

“Now more than ever, employers must ensure the way in which they design, advertise and recruit for roles doesn’t lock women out of work,” she said, adding that, “alongside using gender neutral language, employers should embrace the flexible working revolution”.

In leaning towards flexible working, Woodworth suggested this would ensure women can access roles that have previously been off limits because of “inflexible and old-fashioned” ideas about how and where work is done.