The ‘leading man’ and ‘supporting actress’ – How UK job ads bias applicants by gender

  • Study of nearly 77,000 job ads highlights use of gender-biased language
  • Roles with requirement to ‘lead’, ‘compete’ and ‘analyse’ show male bias
  • Adverts wanting candidates to ‘support’ & ‘understand’ use female coded language
  • Social care, secretarial & vacancies for assistants show female-bias; science & management roles use masculine language
  • Manchester the capital of gender-neutral job adverts – Newcastle the city doing most to champion opportunities for women

WEDNESDAY 15TH NOVEMBER 2017 – Job adverts across the UK are using language likely to bias who applies for the job based on their gender according to research released today.

The study released by the leading jobs board totaljobs following Equal Pay Day 2017, looked at nearly 77,000 job descriptions posted to the site over a six-week period. Academic research from The University of Waterloo and Duke University has shown that the use of certain words in job descriptions decreases the likelihood of applications from either male or female candidates.

In one of the largest ever reviews of its kind, totaljobs looked at 76,929 job descriptions against this research to understand how adverts could lead to UK workers not applying for jobs purely due to how the vacancy was worded.

The research looked at the industries, job roles and regions most guilty of using language that would prejudice against male or female applicants. It is hoped that highlighting this issue now, steps can be taken ahead of the publication of Gender Pay Gap data in April 2018 to ensure future workforces are more diverse and equal.

In addition, totaljobs have released the research to coincide with the launch of their Gender Bias Decoder tool, where candidates can submit their CVs and cover letters to check unwitting gender bias before submitting applications. The tool also allows recruiters to screen job adverts for unwitting gender bias.

The ‘Leading Man’ & The ‘Supporting Actress’?

The study found that talent-hunters were using language that turns out to portray the idea of a traditional ‘alpha male’ when describing the characteristics they were looking for to fill vacancies.

Workers were expected to ‘lead’, ‘analyse’, ‘compete’ and be ‘confident’, creating an image that may dissuade a number of applications from candidates who don’t identify with this male-biased description.

The relative findings suggest that talent-hunters are unwittingly dissuading candidates for applying for certain jobs by using language unconsciously coded towards either male or female applicants.

Most Commonly Used Male-Biased Words in UK job Descriptions

  • Lead – 70,539 mentions
  • Analyse – 35,339 mentions
  • Competitive – 23,079 mentions
  • Active – 20,041 mentions
  • Confident – 13,841 mentions

Most Commonly Used Female-Biased Words in UK job Descriptions

  • Support – 83,095 mentions
  • Responsible – 64,909 mentions
  • Understanding – 29,638 mentions
  • Dependable – 16,979 mentions
  • Committed – 13,129 mentions

The study is one of the largest reviews of the language of the UK recruitment sector and has unearthed a number of shocking gender-biased findings that showcase just how embedded gender stereotyping is. This was particularly evident when looking at the industries most likely to use gender-biased language to both male and female candidates.

Social care was the industry most likely to use female-biased language with 87% of the 1,474 jobs currently listed using female-coded language, something likely to put up unnecessary barriers to more male candidates securing work in the space.

Education (67%) and administrative roles (67%) such as receptionists and personal assistants were the two other industries most likely to use language skewed towards female applications.

  • Social care – 1,687 jobs (87% female bias)
  • Education – 1,772 jobs (67% female bias)
  • Administration – 2,826 jobs (67% female bias)

The study found that female-coded language becomes more embedded when certain service industries were analysed. For example, 62% of 299 cleaning roles listed used language biased towards female candidates. Whilst catering only has 52% female bias, the devil is in the detail. Roles for pub and bar staff are 89% female-coded, with food and beverage vacancies (82%) and housekeeping adverts (77%) not doing much better in their efforts to attract a diverse workforce.

The industries most likely to use male-biased language only served to highlight how the dated perception of the traditional alpha male still endures. Industries such as consulting (59% male bias / 32% female bias) sales (51% male bias / 35% female bias) and insurance (51% male bias / 34% female bias) were most likely to gear their search towards male candidates in the language that was used in the search for talent.  These industries are doing the least to truly attract interested female candidates to come into the marketplace.

Manchester leads the way

Looking at the regions, the UK is led by the City of Manchester. Of the 1,395 jobs advertised in the city at the time of the research, 16% used gender-neutral language with the rest equally split between male and female-biased language (42% / 42%).

However, whilst Manchester lead the way with gender-neutral language, even here the same bias skill exists in sectors that skew the language of their job adverts by gender. Administration, health and cleaning are all sectors that use female-biased language, whereas job adverts are geared towards male candidates in consulting, engineering and banking.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the City of London is the part of the country most likely to use male-biased language with 47% of job adverts utilising male-coded language. The next worst offender was Liverpool, with 43% of job adverts using language likely to dissuade applications from female candidates.

Newcastle is the UK city most likely to use female-biased language, with 52% of the 293 job descriptions in the city using female-biased language compared to just 31% that skewed towards male candidates. Glasgow (52% female bias / 39% male bias) and Edinburgh (50% female / 34% male bias) also had a heavy female-skew to their listed applications.

Female-biased language was actually most prevalent outside the cities, with regional towns far more likely to use language likely to attract female applications but potentially dissuade male candidates. Towns such as Preston (57%), Huddersfield (57%) and Blackburn (56%) indicate that there is a greater need for a focus on gender-neutral language in towns than cities.

David Clift, HR Director at totaljobs comments, ‘Today’s findings indicate just how embedded the use of gender-biased language is within UK recruitment. Thousands of candidates across the country likely rule themselves out of consideration for a role before they have even applied due to the language employed. Industries such as social care, consulting and insurance make it very difficult for fresh blood to break into the sector and shake up the gene pool.

We hope that by revealing these findings and launching our Gender Bias Decoder, both candidates and recruiters can take steps to ensure all their communication is free of gender-biased language. Only by moving towards gender neutrality across all industries can we help create diverse workforces and ensure it is always the best candidate for the job that is awarded the position.’

Candidates can check their CVs, applications and cover letters for any use of gender-biased language by using the totaljobs Gender Bias Decoder which be found at:

– ENDS –


North American research from The University of Waterloo and Duke University previously identified a list of terms that were systematically male and female gender-coded, such as those associated with gender stereotypes, and proved their impact on the American recruitment landscape. Using these terms totaljobs analysed 76,929 job adverts over a six-week period to assess their use and prevalence within the UK recruitment sector

About totaljobs:

Totaljobs is one of UK’s leading job boards, attracting 12 million visits and 3 million applications from qualified jobseekers every month. 130,000 new candidates register with us each month who have an average of 170,000 jobs a month to choose from, posted by thousands of employers including Amazon, Sky, Virgin Media, DHL amongst many others.

We were formed in 1999 and we are part of Totaljobs Group Ltd, the largest and fastest growing UK job board company in the UK. Our head office is in London, and we also have offices in Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Glasgow.

In turn, Totaljobs Group Ltd is a significant division of StepStone Group, one of the largest job board companies in the world and a subsidiary of Axel Springer Digital Classifieds.

Visit the totaljobs website: