A recent study by Textio, a US job site, found that men are being put off by so-called ‘feminine’ terms, such as caring, empathetic and family-focused and don’t apply for these sorts of roles because of it. The analysis of listings for the 14 fastest-growing jobs from 2014 to 2024 found that they tended to use feminine language, which has been statistically shown to attract women and deter men.

Job descriptions for the two fastest-growing jobs that are most typically occupied by men — including wind turbine technicians and commercial divers — used more masculine language in job ads. Terms such as proven, superior and ambitious were subsequently, found to be less likely to attract women.

Here in the UK, we have a long way to go before we have gender-neutral job roles and sectors. Aside from the fact that only 22 per cent of senior management roles are occupied by women, we also have whole swathes of industries which are occupied almost exclusively by one gender or another. 

Roles within the three c’s – cleaning, catering and caring, for example, otherwise known as ‘pink’ jobs, are often filled solely by women. Teaching, HR and office support roles are also usually filled predominantly by women. Whereas roles within manufacturing, engineering, the fire service or the automotive industry are primarily filled by men.

Part of the problem is whether the job is perceived to be ‘family-friendly’ and whether it will provide any sort of flexibility around childcare. Many mothers of young children may, for example, be put off by terms such as go-getting, driven or ambitious if they are looking for a part-time role.

Angela O’Connor, CEO of the HR Lounge consultancy, says it can be very hard for parents to combine work and children and that this often contributes to the gender divide. “There are some amazing organisations and some real flexibility out there but there are also many industries which still feel dominated by a macho, long-hours culture of ‘presenteeism,’” she notes.

HR professionals and recruiters should be leading the way to make these roles and the way they are advertised open to both genders, says O’Connor. “HR people understand that getting the best talent into any role requires targeting the widest talent pool available and not missing out on people who opt out at an early stage,” she notes. “Whether it’s men stepping away from what they see as ‘pink’ roles or women not applying for the ones that seem to signal male attributes.”

Employers also have to be careful not to perpetuate gender stereotypes, O’Connor adds. “The recent discussions about having to legislate further around the positon of women on maternity leave and the dress code stories show us that we do not yet have entirely enlighted workplaces. I am sure there are also many stories of men having gender stereotypes forced on them as well.”

Donna Miller, European HR Director at Enterprise Holdings car rental firm, says there are a complex number of factors that attract someone to a particular role, regardless of gender. “It could be that they are predisposed to catering or cleaning, or that they choose that role because it fits with other commitments, such as caring for an elderly relative.” Miller admits, however, that the way the job is advertised plays an important part.

“In the wider context, language definitely plays an important part in attracting both male and female candidates,” she notes.

It’s something Miller has first-hand experience of operating in an industry which tends to be more male-dominated. “We recognised that, in order to best serve the communities where we operate, we needed to attract an equal number of male and female candidates, as well as make sure we reflect BAME, LGBT and other minority communities,” she says.

“We looked at language to ensure we were engaging everyone equally and were being as inclusive as possible. We learned was that the terms we were using were often too assertive, so we now incorporate terms to describe those softer skills that are needed for a role, such as the ability to mentor and problem solve,” Miller notes.

Enterprise also found that many women don’t apply for roles if they think they only meet some but not all of the criteria whereas men are more likely to apply regardless of whether they have all the right skills. “That’s why we also make sure that we make it clear in job descriptions that we will train and develop candidates. By using gender neutral terms and focusing on accentuating those softer skills, our male to female candidate application ratio went from around 65:35 to 50:50. So an awareness of language has made a huge difference,” says Miller.

Richard Hanwell, Associate Director at The Sterling Choice recruitment consultancy, says recruitment professionals may also be recruiting in their own image and writing ads that would mainly appeal to them, rather than thinking about the bigger picture. “At times recruiting managers might look to recruit mini- versions of themselves and as such write adverts that they would apply to when, in reality, the needs of the business actually require a different set of skills,” he notes.