Greeting colleagues on a Zoom call with “Hey, guys!” or using terms like “chairman” or “congressman” to refer to occupations may seem innocuous, but experts say these types of gendered language — though usually spoken without intention to exclude or offend — still have the power to send messages that limit women and non-binary people.
With more people identifying outside of the male-female gender binary, and an increasing number of women earning higher education degrees and poised to enter the job market in the coming years, advocates believe terms that center around “maleness” are relics of the past worth phasing out. Even when accidental, these terms send detrimental subliminal messages about who belongs and who does not.
In business settings especially, this type of gendered language remains one of the key components of the male-centric culture that women and non-binary individuals are often forced to put up with. Lisa Kaplowitz, director of the Rutgers Business School Center for Women in Business ranks this type of exclusionary language as one of the main problems women working in male-dominated fields face, playing into the culture that perpetuates potentially life-altering issues such as the gender pay gap, assumptions about motherhood making women less focused on their careers and the systemic and long fight against denying leadership roles to women.
All of these problems have only exacerbated over the past year due to the pandemic, which has resulted in a record-breaking exodus of women from their careers according to McKinsey research. “One in four women are thinking about leaving the workforce,” Kaplowitz said. “I think it’s the impact of COVID and the division of unpaid labor at home, coupled with the presumption from senior leaders that they don’t want meatier assignments or more high-profile work because they have to take care of the responsibilities at home.” In times like these, changing language won’t singlehandedly destroy misogyny, but according to Kaplowitz, it’s one small action professionals can take to help normalize women’s roles in a diverse array of occupations.
“If you say the word of that policeman, I don’t hear myself in that word,” she said. “Chairman? I don’t hear myself. Now, if we say chairwoman, chairperson — I think all of that helps. It’s not one thing that will make the greatest impact, it’s a combination of all of these factors compounding themselves.”
As the primary way we communicate with others, the language we use can definitely make a difference, said Chris Bright (who uses pronouns interchangeably but preferred they/them for this article), director of public training at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization aimed at preventing suicide in LGBTQ youth. In an email interview, Bright said that gendered language not only excludes cisgender women from important aspects of day-to-day life, but also has the added component of causing distress to transgender and nonbinary people who may feel invalidated when they are misgendered.
“Throughout history, women have been excluded from language under the pretense that men should hold the power in society,” Bright said. “This of course has continued even today with terms like ‘you guys.’ While that history is generally problematic, it takes on a whole different meaning for transgender and nonbinary folks. The use of gender-exclusive language not only reinforces harmful stereotypes, but it also runs the risk of misgendering or invalidating a person’s gender identity.”
Transgender and nonbinary people face numerous barriers in the workplace, including discrimination for their sexual identity, lack of discrimination protection through state laws and not being given access to uniforms, restrooms or other facilities that match their true identities. This type of painful discrimination is known as gender dysphoria (the feeling of discomfort or distress a person might feel when their identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth) and can cause extreme mental health challenges, especially when paired with the rampant discrimination and violence against transgender individuals that exists in America today. Even pre-COVID-19, the challenges to transgender and nonbinary youth were so severe that a heartbreaking 54% of individuals had seriously considered suicide.
“[Gender dysphoria] can be further intensified when folks around you continually use gendered language to describe professions, people groups or hobbies.” Bright said. “We can support our friends who experience dysphoria by changing the way we talk about gender, by removing assigned gender stereotypes from our language and by making it clear that we will always use terms that are inclusive and reflective of each individual’s gender identity.”
Although conversations about language are often dismissed as semantics, Bright noted that semantics do have power. “Of course, language is semantics, but why on Earth would we not be concerned with semantics?” they said. “The meaning of language is important. The fact that language changes over time is an important and powerful testament to the advancement of society. It’s time for us to move beyond the narrow-minded and often patriarchal language of the past.”
Kaplowitz agrees that changing habits based around language is a challenge but being conscious of it is the first step. Based on advice she’d heard from DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson, Kaplowitz said she recommends giving everyone a bit of good grace for starters. If you start out at a place where you presume that intentions are good, then there are interventions you can use to help promote and instigate change. “Have a separate conversation with the person either right then or immediately afterward, privately, to talk about how their words can be interpreted,” she said. “Then provide some suggested corrections on how to change them.”
Greetings like, “Hey, everyone,” “Hi, all,” and “Good morning, folks” are easy, gender-neutral addresses that don’t take much effort to adopt. Using terms like “chairperson” “congress member” and “business person” begin to remove assumptions about what kinds of people can fill certain roles. Being aware of the words you use and asking others to hold you accountable as well can help override old habits.
“Using gender-neutral language is a simple and effective way to foster inclusion, especially for transgender and nonbinary young people,” Bright said. “It sends the message that all people are welcome.”