IfA to trial ‘gender-neutral’ language in bid to boost female STEM applicants


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.”

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. I am genuinely unsure about this, but feel it’s important to comment. Woman are underrepresented in the ‘STEM’ world and we definitely need to do more if we’re to encourage more woman to choose one of these career paths. We do have woman in engineering, and wider STEM jobs, who excel currently and the language used in these sectors is representative of the roles, not the gender of the applicant.
    I welcome a push to encourage more woman into STEM sector careers but my gut is telling me that this isn’t the stumbling block, although I would be happy to be proved wrong!!

  2. E Jenkings

    It makes me so sad to hear that leaders of the IfA would describe the following words as masculine: active, decisive, leader, ambition, challenge, objective, competitiveness, independence, opinion, confident and intellectual.
    The way to get women into STEM subjects is the comlete opposite. In fact we must surround girls with all of these words from a young age; allowing them to understand that these words are NOT masculine, but completely reachable for them. Surely the real issue is that women are less likely to believe they can be the above words? Why is this…because of deep rooted beliefs in the education and work systems underpinned by sexist ideologies such as the ones littering this article.

    • Neil Barrett

      Agreed – the pre-conceptions of many young women (and non-binary or gender-fluid persons) may be turning them away from roles that they could excel at. We should be aiming for a position where the adjectives describe the role accurately (not just recruiters favourite buzzwords) and the candidates can genuinely think “Is that me?” whether the term is “ambitious” or “co-operative” or “creative” or whatever.

    • R Heath

      It may be that the language used is a little sloppy, but I think your comments are somewhat harsh. I would read the references to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ language as referring to terms that appeal more or less, on average, to each gender (apparently supported by research evidence); I don’t think anyone is suggesting they are hard-wired. Of course the root problem is the gender roles that society imposes and yes, we should work to overturn those, but in the meantime changing language to attract more women to areas in which they are underrepresented is a laudable aim.

      Neither do I think, as you are effectively suggesting, that the solution is to teach girls/women to be more like boys/men. Speaking as one of the latter, I find the terms “understand, kind, honest, dependable, co-operative and support” far more admirable – indeed aspirational – than the supposed masculine virtues.

  3. GERRY

    I, too, am disappointed by how the IfA have decided these words are ‘masculine’ and putting women off.
    I suggest that following in the steps of some of our illustrious political parties perhaps the IfATE might consider AWS (all-women shortlists) as an affirmative action practice. This increased the proportion of female MPs (hardly a surprise) and would solve the gender imbalance for Jo Morfee of InnovateHer.
    Is it not the case that an employer actually wants/needs the selected applicant to actually demonstrate that they are ambitious, analytical, decisive, confident, and show leadership, independence and intellect?
    The applicant’s score against set criteria would result in the best person getting the job, male or female. Playing around with ‘Gender-Neutral’ language is surely an insult to women, and does nobody any favours in the long-term.

  4. I work with my clients in this area too, and have seen very good results, provided the initiative is part of wider change in culture and approach. It’s actually not the leaders of iFA who have decided these are masculine or feminine words. It’s research that asked men and women what attracted them in job adverts and what didn’t. You can find more about the research here http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com/

    Let me ask previous commenters the following:
    – Where did this ideal come from that we have to live in a society where the same words work for everyone?
    – Why is it sad that women prefer a job where it is about team and communication?
    What would be wrong for let’s say a project manager or principal engineer to lead in a supportive way, facilitating others to achieve results and build connections with stakeholders? What’s wrong with wanting to be let’s say committed rather than competitive? There is more than one way to reach a goal.

    Or let’s turn it around, why do we not see adverts for nurses that are expected to be ambitious, independent, objective and confident? Surely there’s more than one way to be a good nurse?