Male-coded job adverts hurt gender balance

by Dec 3, 2019

We need to be more wary of creating male-coded job adverts

Many companies are hoping to attract more female candidates to their top positions, so why do they continue to create male-coded job adverts? 

At one time a job advert was the first time an applicant would be introduced to a company. Today that has changed, and a potential candidate will have had as many as 15 touch points with your organisation. This could be via your web site, social media or knowledge of your products and services. All your communication in the public domain sends messages about you to your target market. If you are trying to attract women to your organisation it’s important to create and position your messages with intention. They should be strategic using language that says “welcome you belong here”.  Not “enter at your peril” or “danger … men at work.”

LinkedIn research, Gender Insights Report, indicates that women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men on that platform. So, what your job posting says and the way it is created is important.

Language is important

Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2011, Vol 101(1), p109-28), is a study by Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C. Kay. It indicates how job adverts include different kinds of gender-coded language which is received by men and women differently. Their study highlights the level of appeal the jobs conveyed and how much the participants felt that they could potentially ‘belong’ in that job organisation.

Their results showed that women felt that job adverts with masculine-coded language were less appealing. As a result, they felt that they would “belong” less in those occupations. For men, feminine-coded adverts were only slightly less appealing. Furthermore, there was no effect on how much the men felt they belonged in those roles. In basic terms, male-coded job adverts deter female candidates, while male-coded adverts do not put men off.

What do you think of male-coded job adverts like this?

This week I was working with an executive and he showed me an advert for a role which interested him. This came from an international organisation which has a strong commitment to gender balance. However, it struggles with attracting and retaining women at the very level this job posting was targeting.

An executive search specialist (male) wrote the preamble on the job profile, which the client would probably then have approved. Although it stated a desire to move from a transactional business model to one built on trusted relationships, the posting itself was very male coded. We ran it through a gender decoder app.  See the results below:

I don’t know how many women applied for this job, but the imbalance in the language composition is clear. It was set up, probably unintentionally, to appeal to male applicants. As you can see, there were TWENTY male coded words compared to FOUR feminine coded words. The subliminal messaging in an advert, while perhaps inadvertent, can make a significant impact on the type of candidates who apply. We have no way of knowing how many women might have self de-selected, simply because they felt they couldn’t / wouldn’t fit in.

Research shows that stereotypically masculine words or phrases can put women off applying for jobs. Nouns like, scrum master, rock star, ninja, and black belt may cause some women to look away. Adjectives such as assertive, decisive, analytical, independent, and self-reliant can.

Research from thousands of ads by Totaljobs produced two lists of masculine and feminine coded words. An asterisk indicates a root:

Male-coded words

Active, Adventurous, Aggress*, Ambition, Analy*, Assert*, Athlet*, Autonom*, Boast*, Challeng*, Compet*, Confident, Courag*, Decide, Decisive, Decision*, Determin*, Dominant, Domina*, Force*, Greedy, Headstrong, Hierarch*, Hostil*, Implusive, Independen*, Individual*, Intellect*, Lead*, Logic, Masculine, Objective, Opinion, Outspoken, Persist, Principle*, Reckless, Stubborn, Superior, Self-confiden*, Self-sufficien*, Self-relian*.

Female-coded words

Affectionate, Child*, Cheer*, Commit*, Communal, Compassion*, Connect*, Considerate, Cooperat*, Depend*, Emotiona*, Empath*, Feminine, Flatterable, Gentle, Honest, Interpersonal, Inter-dependen*, Interpersona*, Kind, Kinship, Loyal *, Modesty, Nag, Nurtur*, Pleasant*, Polite, Quiet*, Respon*, Sensitiv*, Submissive, Support*, Sympath*, Tender*, Together*, Trust*, Understand*, Warm*, Whin*, Yield*.


Take a look at our FREE e-book for 12 key steps to attract, recruit and retain female talent.

Gender-coded leadership adverts

In job postings, the most commonly used male-gendered words are: lead, analyse, competitive, confident. In contrast, for women, they are:  responsible, understanding, dependable, committed. This does not mean that women can’t have qualities and skills associated with stereotypical male norms. They reflect societal biases around gender expectations. Women are perceived to be kind and cooperative, but there is nothing to suggest that men can’t be as well. Just as women can be rational and dynamic. It means we see leadership as a male role rather than a female one because that is how it has always been.  Our idea of leadership is a social construct but that doesn’t mean that it always has to be so and can’t be changed. We are just too used to describing leadership using words that are typically associated with gender-stereotyped male characteristics and also place a higher value on them.

The real challenge is to convey leadership roles in language that is not male-coded and support roles using vocabulary that is gender neutral or female coded. We need to change the language reflecting a male-style leadership approach into inclusive more female coded language, which focuses on connection, relationship, cooperation and holistic vision.

Senior Roles

Totaljobs have produced their own gender bias decoder. Their research observed that in senior-level UK postings, the adverts tend to be orientated towards male applicants. Roles with the following job title presented bias as follows;

  • Head (50% male bias vs. 36% female bias)
  • Director (55% male bias vs. 32% female bias)
  • Partner (52% male bias vs. 34% female bias)

Roles including both ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ elements indicated male-gendered language (48% male bias vs. 39% female bias)
Consulting (68%), Sales (63%) and IT (52%) are the sectors most likely to be male-biased for ‘senior’ roles. This should not come as a shock.

Junior Roles

Nor should it come as a surprise that junior roles contain language with a more female bias:

  • Education (67% female bias vs. 25% male bias)
  • Science (62% male bias vs. 28% female bias)
  • Customer Service (50% female bias vs. 35% male bias)
  • Catering (52% female bias vs. 31% male bias)
  • Marketing (52% male bias vs. 33% female bias)

Take advantage of tech

What is required of us all is to create text using language which is not associated with gender-coded expectations. This means we have to change our habits and unlearn the way we view and do things. At the start it might take some effort, but eventually it will come naturally. In the meantime, I would strongly advise using some of the platforms such as Textio, TapRecruit and Talvista have developed augmented writing tools that can improve your job adverts or any other written communication, by reviewing the language. Some will suggest alternative words and phrasings that will better resonate with women who are looking at your position.

For those organisations on a budget Kat Matfield’s Gender De-coder also offers some basic advice around which words are currently perceived to be masculine or feminine.

Change the language, change the culture

The LinkedIn Gender Insights report suggested replacing words such as “demanding” because “that might reflect negatively on company culture or workload can also put off female candidates who tend to look for positions that offer flexibility. Rather, the study suggests, hiring managers should indicate that they are looking for “diligent” workers for a “fast-paced” environment.”

In some ways this suggests that women need to look for flexibility rather than men, further embedding stereotypes. At 3Plus we prefer replacing “diligent” (a rather pedestrian choice, more suited to a lower level support role which is where women are trapped in their “good girl” conscientious positions.) We tested “committed”  which is female coded, or “focused ”  and saw they produced better results. Fast-paced environment can be regarded as recruiter-speak for chaotic. We found “high energy” and “creative” are excellent replacements.

Language is critical to describe who we are and conveys our organisational values. How we phrase a question will influence the response. Now more than ever we can measure the impact of our vocabulary choices. We have the possibility to combine the art of creating a compelling narrative with the science of understanding how that narrative will be discovered and received.

Change the language. Change the culture. It’s badly needed.

Make sure that your company does not have an alienating culture by taking part in our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

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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