Why is Leadership a Gender Coded Word?

andrea janov
4 min readMar 22, 2022


As I write job descriptions, inclusion is always on my mind. First and foremost, I have to explain what the role is, what this person will do day in and day out, I need to focus the stills that they need to have to do the job. After that, I need to let them know our culture and help them understand if it is a culture they want to join. Will they be happy showing up every day? Great. Check. I have created a job description that is 100% company-centric.

But then, I have to step back, review the posting, and consider who will respond to it. Who am I appealing to? Who am I excluding? Who am I dissuading from applying? The first thing I do is run the descriptions through decoders (Totaljobs and Joblint) that call out my bias and tell me if my job description skews masculine or feminine.

At first I was like, “Awesome, great tool!” but then certain words started to get under my skin, especially, leadership (also lead and leader). Why the hell is that masculine? You are telling me that there are not just as many women to strive to be a leader than men? Are you telling me that all women (or even most) are subconsciously not applying to jobs because the posting is asking for a leader or someone with leadership qualities? Are you telling me that you think that women have that little confidence in their skills and abilities? That, my friend, sounds a bit condescending to me.

Then, slowly, the whole premise started to bother me. As I looked closer, all of the words that indicate drive or career advancement are coded masculine and all the words that indicate support are coded feminine. Who decided which words are feminine coded and which words are masculine coded? Years of men being in charge? And is this perpetuating these stereotypes?

I tried to look up where this data is coming from. The most recent evidence that I can find connected to any of these decoders is from 2011, that was over 10 years ago. In an era of life that is changing rapidly from day to day and people identifying with more fluid gender roles than ever, why are we shoving words into these binary categories? We are in a time where we are developing more and more ways to talk about our own relationship to gender and at the same time, well meaning companies are relying on these antiquated tools to attract the “right” applicants. Are these tools ensuring that we are getting diverse applicants because we have altered the language of a job description, or are we perpetuating gender stereotypes by gendering words and traits?

I know that I can use this tool to balance the masculine and feminine words so that it is appealing to men, women, non-binary, and non-gendered individuals, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. I want strong leaders who listen to and support their team members, men, women, or nonbinary. These types of categorization seem irresponsible, they seem to be counterintuitive to the direction we are already headed. They are antiquated.

But back to my main rub, the words and stereotypes, not the tools, that is what started this whole thing. I am insulted that you think that leadership would not appeal to me as a female, I am even more insulted that you believe that support would. You are telling me and other female identifying individuals that we shouldn’t want those jobs that have words like ambitious, confident, driven, lead, self-confident? Who do you think we are? I feel as though this is telling me that you believe that women, in general, would like to be or be more comfortable as, someone’s personal assistant for her whole career instead of having a seat at the leadership table? And that, brings fire to my eyes. That fire is stoked by two very different things, one, I don’t want you underestimating any female identifying person and undercutting her ambition, and two, I don’t want you to assume that those female identifying individuals who do chose support based careers are doing it just because they are supposed to, don’t undercut her decisions either.

When I am creating a job description, interviewing, looking for that perfect person to fill the role of a leader in my company. I want strong leaders, women, men, nonbinary, who listen to and support their team members while pushing the company forward. I need leaders who understand people and are empathic. If I left out the word leadership, or if I changed it to guidance, I would be losing every single person who is a leader, wanted to become one, and would succeed in this role. I don’t explicitly look for women or nonbinary individuals to fill management and leadership roles, but I would love more so that we can get over this ridiculous stereotype of binary traits.

While I 100% get that words have gendered connotations, I don’t think that the solution is to run job descriptions through these tools. We have to work (hard) to remove the stigma around those words. We shouldn’t make sure that we have a balance of masculine and feminine words, but stop thinking of those words as having a gender and look for people with the skills and qualities that fit the role and the culture. We need to do better.



andrea janov

Startup culture + people operations professional who believes in individuals, equity, nontraditional career paths, outside perspectives, + tattoos in boardrooms