The Right Words for the Job: How Gendered Language Affects the Workplace
Working in tech for the past 15 years, I have been steeped in the language of an industry where men outnumber women by a significant margin. One day I heard myself talking about a startup as “two guys in a garage,” and I stopped short. I realized that I reflexively used gender-specific words in everyday conversation without much thought on their impact, so I committed to writing down every time I heard gender-specific words come up at work. What started as a brief document grew and grew over the next several months to an expansive list. What surprised me was how deep our gender-specific language runs. These words were not said with misogynistic or negative intent, but rather they were used in apparently innocuous ways.
Our words matter, and they affect people whether we realize it or not. Language subtly pushes us to imagine the type of person in a role, and it also discourages others from seeking it. A 2011 study found that the gendering of everyday language can impact an individual’s judgments, decisions, and their behavior. Influencing both their self-perception and interactions with others. (Prewitt-Frelino, Caswell, Laakso 2011)
Our words matter, and they affect people whether we realize it or not.
Once I started documenting these words, I heard them everywhere — in meetings, hallway conversations and presentations. Many of the masculine phrases like “manpower” and “right-hand man” were neutral to positive, usually indicating a position of strength while nearly all of the feminine ones, like “prima donna” and “Debbie downer” were negative and indicated weakness. These subtle sexist messages are all around us, and as a mother of a boy and two girls, I wonder what it says to them about the world we live in.
If someone says a project is a “two-man job,”who comes to mind for the opportunity? When you hear, “Who is the quarterback on this?” do you instinctively pick someone who fits that description to lead?
A study from the University of Waterloo and Duke University showed that masculine language is widely used in more male-dominated fields whereas feminine language is not used more often in female-dominated fields. When shown job listings which sounded more masculine, women tended to find them less appealing and sensed they would have less belonging. When we use terms like “gentlemen’s agreement” or “manning up” it has a subtle but meaningful effect on the workplace.
The best way to confront unconscious bias is to force ourselves to be aware of how it is present all around us, even built directly into work lexicon we use every day.
I challenge you to commit for one week to keeping track of every single instance where you would use a male or female word or phrase and change it both in your mind and your words. Correct yourself publicly as you say it. I think you’ll find that when you replace phrases like “two-man rule” with “two-person rule” you’ll also start to change the images in your head. The best way to confront unconscious bias is to force ourselves to be aware of how it is present all around us, even built directly into work lexicon we use every day.
Here are some examples of male and female words and phrases to look out for:
Old boys club
Two guys in a garage (starting a startup)
That’s his boy
Man bites dog
White man’s burden
Key man risk
Great man myth
Grow a pair
Big boy pants
Manning a booth
Everyone and their brother
Run like a girl
Resting b*tch face
Would your mom be able to use this product?
Mom replacement apps
Negative Nancy / Negative Nelly
Everyone and their mother
Open the kimono