So now you have published your gender pay gap statement and added the traditional narrative treading the thin line between acknowledgement of the gap and denial that it represents evidence of any unlawful discrimination. Well done so far, but if the UK Government has its way, that is only the beginning.

Most of the narratives we have seen note that their pay gap is caused or materially contributed to by a preponderance of men at the higher-paid levels of the business, which necessarily distorts the overall outcome even where in like-for-like rules there is no inequality at all. It is certainly true that while the equal pay legislation has been reasonably successful in procuring that equality between like roles, there has been less obvious progress towards an equal distribution of the genders within corporate hierarchies.

The GPG report is a good opportunity to look again at why that is. Is it that fewer women apply for certain senior or higher-paying roles, that they apply but disproportionately fail to get them, or that they get them but “drop out” to a statistically greater extent at a later stage? Each of these points has its own solution, but online recruitment company thinks that part of the problem is in the way companies word their job advertisements, and in particular their descriptions of the role and the sort of person they want in it. This is however much more sophisticated stuff than the early days of allegedly gender-specific job ads – the Tribunals were quick to spot that if you said you were looking for someone “bubbly” or “attractive” for example, it would probably not be a man. Sorry, chaps.

Backed by previous academic research, Totaljobs identified a number of much more subtly gender-coded words whose inclusion in job ads, however neutrally intended, often led to a disproportionate number of applications from one gender or the other. Some of these words seem a little obvious, like “masculine” – oops, bit of a Freudian slip by the ad writer there, sorry – and others seem frankly unlikely to appear in either job descriptions or person specs, such as boastful, greedy, hostile and reckless (I don’t want that candidate, thanks) on the male hand, and emotional, nagging, submissive, whining and yielding on the other. However, if you strip those out, many of the remaining words will feature large in your average job ad – according to Totaljobs’ survey of some 77,000 adverts, approximately six male- or female-coded words a time. Top of the male-coded Pops were “lead” (leadership, leader, leading, etc.) with 70,500 appearances, followed well down the field by derivations of analytical (35,500), competitive, active and confident. The other side of the gender divide was headed by “support” (83,000, more than once per ad), then responsible, understanding, dependable and committed.

No one is saying that the inclusion of these words in your ads evidences any conscious or even unconscious tendency to discriminate. However, research apparently indicates that although a woman may easily possess all the same “male” attributes (other male-coded terms in the survey include aggressive, autonomous, decisive, determined, head-strong, principled) as a man, she will be statistically more hesitant to apply for roles which expressly demand those traits in an applicant. No doubt there is a suggestion that men are equally turned off by a prospective requirement to be compassionate, considerate, honest, nurturing, supportive or even just pleasant, which seems a little harsh, but there you go.

So then we come down to what, if anything, could be done about this by the employer seeking to reduce its gender pay gap. I am aware of one organisation which intends to recruit more men into the lowest-paying roles, which will be successful mathematically but puts a bus through the spirit of the GPG legislation. Others may more constructively consider whether there is any room for manoeuvre in the wording of their job ads without actively misrepresenting the nature of the role. Research in the US suggests that you could, for example, replace strong with exceptional or high-quality, assertive with go-getting, connecting [with customers] with providing great customer service.   In addition, do you really need all those adjectives or are they just there for show – after all, who looks at an advertisement requiring someone “dynamic”, for example, and thinks, well, maybe in other circumstances, but in that case I just can’t be bothered? Other than an increased risk of an age discrimination claim, what does the word bring you? The same principle applies of course to gender-coded words also.

We are left with certain inescapables – that some jobs involve leading and others involve supporting. It would serve no purpose (and could generate active legal trouble) for an employer not to make this clear in an ad. But in the lower reaches of your job specification, take a moment to consider whether there is scope to pick a different word which plays less to gender stereotypes. That is because what this study perhaps shows is that men and women are stereotyping themselves, not so much each other, and that coded phraseology of this sort can wholly inadvertently, but still materially, reduce the breadth of potentially qualified candidates who apply.