Terms you may be using that offend women at work

And suggestions for more considerate gender-inclusive language.

And suggestions for more considerate gender-inclusive language

(Credit: iStockPhoto)

Once, at the tail end of a particularly stressful and patience-trying stretch of overtime at a past job, I got called into my CEO's office for a chat. I was great at my job, he and his male COO told me. But my attitude could use some work.

They told me I needed to be "softer" and show more humility. It was a small company with no HR, and despite the obvious power imbalance in the room, I felt compelled to ask whether they would use the same language with my equally outspoken (and more senior) male colleague. The implication that their choice of words was inappropriate or that there was a double standard was, not surprisingly, categorically denied. I quit the next day.

Fortunately, at that time I was house-sitting for my father who was on a sabbatical. Not having to pay rent meant I was in a financial position to extricate myself from this toxic situation that called for me to fit a particular mould of feminine behaviour. Few people stuck in bad work situations have this luxury.

It's a testament to my actual contributions that I was asked to stay and finish the project at double my usual rate. But overall, the scenario is a relatively unremarkable example of how the type of language we use at work marginalizes women on a regular basis.

Whether it's complimenting the "girl" from finance on her appearance when she enters a meeting, starting emails with a seemingly benign "Hey guys" or peppering job posts with terms like "competitive environment," which are likely to turn more women away than men, the way we communicate matters.

"People attend to these cues, like the language that's being used, as indicators of belonging and respect," says Leanne Son Hing, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph who studies inequalities in the workplace. "Women can get driven out of male-dominated occupations, out of higher levels of leadership, out of more masculine environments because they're attending to these cues, and so the language that people use is important."

Not only does language reflect our society's belief systems, it helps construct them. Sexist or non-inclusive language, which distinguishes and diminishes based on gender (but also race, age, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status, or religion), is a result of the inequalities that also perpetuate them. And when it comes to making subtle adjustments to the way we communicate, our tendency to dig in may surprise you.

"Certain types of people do seem to be more reluctant to use gender-neutral language," says Son Hing. Research shows that women are more supportive of inclusive language than men, at least in part because it threatens the established social hierarchies and systems that give men a disproportionate amount of power and status.

It's not difficult to see how language can do this.

Alina Owsianik, the director of diversity, talent and inclusion at HR services company Randstad Canada points out that you never hear the terms "feisty" or "bossy" used to describe men.

Furthermore, words like "aggressive," "emotional" or "sensitive" have different meanings when applied to men versus women.

Last month a Nike ad celebrating "crazy" women called attention to society's tendency to describe women as delusional, hysterical, irrational and crazy for daring to be — here's another one — ambitious.

Owsianik points out that, historically, using terms like these to describe women who display emotion not only criticizes women but stigmatizes mental illness.

Still, she says, "there's definitely many cases that a person simply may not even understand that the term is really diminishing or gender-biased."

Words like "ladies," "girls," "sweetie" and "dear" may seem polite or harmless, but they, too, undermine authority and impact perceptions about women's competence, says Son Hing. Their use fits into the category of what's called benevolent sexism, which attributes ostensibly positive, yet subservient traits to women, such as being nurturing or needing protection and special treatment.

While Son Hing says research shows men are more likely to exhibit higher levels of hostile sexism than women, both men and women tend to hold benevolently sexist views to a similar degree.

How to make your language more inclusive

So how do we go about discouraging the use of gendered language in favour of more inclusive communication that benefits not just women but all equity-seeking groups?

Canadian federal and provincial governments and many organizations have created guidelines on gender inclusive language. If your workplace doesn't have any recommendations, you could discuss creating some.

To have a successful workplace, says Owsianik, diversity and inclusion have to be encouraged at every level of the organization and not just during training sessions or annual reviews. She also encourages people to think beyond their own experiences when choosing their words.

Individually, you could start to replace certain common terms with more inclusive alternatives. Depending on the context, you can swap in "everyone," "folks," "you all,", "employees" or "people" for "guys," "ladies and gentlemen" or "men and women."

Use proper names, and drop gendered honorifics or forms of address like Mrs. or Mr. altogether, if possible. Professional titles often have gender-neutral forms like firefighter, server, flight attendant, chairperson and so on. When in doubt, there are multiple online resources, as well as some print ones, you can reference, but the best policy may be to just ask the person in question how they would like to be addressed, and correct yourself and apologize if you got it wrong.

For some words, like Sir and Ma'am, there is no inclusive alternative, so just don't use them. In many situations, you'll probably find, referencing a person's gender isn't even relevant. The important thing is to tune into your language, practice using inclusive terms and remember that language is always evolving.

Robin Lakoff is a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer in the study of gendered language. She recommends considering whether you would use the same term, give an order or make a request in the same way if you were speaking to or about a man versus a woman.

If you wouldn't say the same thing in both scenarios, or if the meaning changes depending on who you're speaking to or about, that's a clear sign that the language you're using is gendered.

And while Lakoff cautions that language and societal power imbalances are too interconnected to change independently of each other, Son Hing points out that when individuals change their behaviour, this can influence a change in their attitudes.

"If people are given a bit more guidance within the workplace about appropriate professional, codes of behaviour and norms … for the most part, people will probably start to comply with those new sets of behaviours," says Son Hing. "With training, people do change."


Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.

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