Advertising roles with flexible working boosts applications from women, study suggests

Research finds using gender-neutral language and offering different work patterns could open up more diverse talent pools

Women are more likely to apply for senior level roles if the job advert offers flexible hours and uses gender-neutral language, a government-backed study has found.  

The study for insurance company Zurich, conducted by Behavioural Insights Team, suggests that more women could apply for top jobs if employers advertised roles with flexible-working terms and gender-neutral language. 

Zurich, which employs about 4,500 people across the UK, began advertising all its vacancies with part-time, full-time, job-share or flexible-working options last year. Coupled with the use of gender-neutral language in every job advert, Zurich said it had seen a “significant change” in the type of candidate applying for jobs.

The insurance firm saw a 16 per cent increase in the absolute number of female applicants as a direct result of the initiative. This translated to a 6 percentage point increase in the proportion of applicants who were female, which rose from 36 per cent for all applicants between January 2017 and March 2019 to 42 per cent in the time between March 2019 and the end of February 2020.

Additionally, there was a 19 per cent jump in the absolute number of women applying for senior roles – a 6 percentage points increase in the proportion of applicants, rising from 31 per cent to 37 per cent over the same period.

Steve Collinson, head of HR at Zurich, said flexible working could help organisations tackle the diversity and inclusion issues that businesses had been battling with for years. “By offering roles that fit flexibly around family life, employers could open the floodgates to a much wider pool of untapped talent,” he said.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Alongside the increase in applications, a separate study by Zurich found the number of women hired for senior roles as a direct result of the initiative leapt by 33 per cent. 

However, Katy Fridman, founder of Flexible Working People, criticised the research for stating the obvious. She said it was "not rocket science" that women fall out of the job market after they start families, and that it was surprising to her this was being reported as a new discovery.

"Absolutely companies that want to retain their female employees and support their career progression should offer true flexible-working options," Fridman said. "Putting that on a job ad is a baseline requirement, which will undoubtedly drive more interest and applications."

Fridman added that to have a bigger impact, the conversation about flexible working had to be moved away from gender. Making flexibility a "woman’s right simply perpetuates the issue… Flexible working should be a standard for all, not a privilege for some," she said.

Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said it was encouraging to see the increase in female applicants for senior roles that offered flexible working, and called for all organisations to offer flexible working from day one.

“When it comes to progression, employees shouldn’t feel forced to compromise on career advancement for flexibility," she said. "People need flexibility for a range of reasons such as balancing work with childcare or eldercare responsibilities, or to pursue other interests.”

McCartney said organisations that recognise this and provide a range of flexible options – such as compressed hours or job shares – at all levels are likely to benefit from greater inclusion and diversity, increased motivation and greater agility to respond to customer and client needs.

The CIPD has been campaigning for businesses to use the tagline ‘happy to talk flexible working’ in all their recruitment in order to tap into the widest pool of talent.

Last year, Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a bill that would force employers to make all job roles flexible by default, rather than putting the onus on employees to request flexibility.

Under this flexible working bill, which is currently being prepared for publication, employers would have to make all roles flexible, with employees allowed to choose from a predefined list of flexible arrangements, unless there was a sound business case for why the role could not be done flexibly.

The calls for increased flexible working options in the UK prompted the government to launch a flexible-working jobs board, which aims to help new parents back into work. The board shows users adverts from the government’s existing Find a Job site that offer some form of flexible working, and hosts job adverts from employers all over the country.