The Institute for Apprenticeships is to trial “gender-neutral” language in a bid to boost the number of female STEM apprentices – after research found “masculine” words in job adverts, such as “ambition”, “challenging” and “leader”, deter them from applying.

The chronic under-representation of women taking apprenticeships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is a problem the government and employers have struggled to fix.

Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s permanent secretary, told the Public Accounts Committee in March that officials are “working hard” to increase the female proportion, which currently sits at a “hopeless” 9 per cent.

I believe it will make a big difference to the levels of gender diversity we see in the digital pathways

But apart from the DfE’s new Fire It Up apprenticeships campaign, which uses images and role models to portray women in STEM subjects positively, it is hard to see what else the department is doing to tackle the issue.

The Institute for Apprenticeships has been doing its own brainstorming and has decided to trial using “gender-neutral language” in apprenticeship standards. This, it believes, will “ensure that they do not put women off considering apprenticeships”.

“Research has shown that the language used in job adverts can make the job more or less appealing to one gender and therefore discourage women from applying for certain jobs,” said Ana Osbourne, deputy director for apprenticeship approvals at the IfA.

“We are looking at how this applies to the wording in apprenticeships – including for STEM apprenticeships, where the number of women is lower.”

The pilot, which will initially involve the application of gender-neutral language to the 12 standards in scope of the IfA’s digital review, has been influenced by the work of Jo Morfee, the co-founder and director of InnovateHer, who sits on the institute’s digital route panel.

“Through working closely with our corporate partners we’ve discovered that the use of gender-neutral language has the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome,” she told FE Week, and claimed that one of her organisation’s partners “saw a 40 per cent increase in female applicants for senior data analyst roles as a result of changing the language they used”.

“I’ve advocated for this approach and learning to be applied to how we design apprenticeship content and I’m very pleased that the institute is taking this on board,” Morfee said.

“I believe it will make a big difference to the levels of gender diversity we see in the digital pathways.”

The advert that increased female applications by 40 per cent referred to by Morfee, and seen by FE Week, lists a number of “feminine and neutral” words that should be used in job adverts, which include: understand, kind, honest, dependable, co-operative and support.

It also lists “masculine” words that should be avoided, such as: active, decisive, leader, ambition, challenge, objective, competitiveness, independence, opinion, confident and intellectual.

Carole Easton, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said gender stereotypes, “reinforced by the language used in job adverts, are shutting women out of apprenticeships in vital sectors like construction and engineering”.

She told FE Week that the IfA’s idea of trialling gender-neutral language in apprentice job adverts is “a welcome move, but should not be done in isolation”.

Carole Easton

“Much more is needed to open these sectors up to women, including targeting job adverts at women, providing women-only taster days and raising the minimum wage for apprentices,” she added.

Stephen Rooney, director of STEM Women, also said that job advert wording “is important”.

“It has been proven that men are more likely to apply for a job if they meet ‘most’ of the pre-requisites,” he explained.

“In order to attract more female applicants, companies should ensure that the list of required skills is as small as possible, with only essential requirements appearing on the job specification.

“Companies should also be aware that female job hunters are more likely to apply for a position if the wording focuses on team and communication skills, whereas job adverts focussing on targets and individual awards attract a greater proportion of male applicants.”

He added: “I believe that the institute will receive a greater proportion of female applicants if it uses gender-neutral language or female-focused job advert wording, and it makes sense to trial a variety of advert styles.”