Culture — October 16, 2017

Words of Wisdom: How Workplace Language Influences Gender Equality

Language and gender are inextricably tied. How can we use language to promote gender equality rather than reinforce biases in the workplace and beyond?

by Emily Smith Cardineau

Women in Business Workplace

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Last month, Hillary Clinton emerged from the dark night following her 2016 presidential election loss to promote her new book, What Happened.

The book’s title, of course is a reference to her 2016 presidential loss, and the book itself offers an explanation to the country in the form of a candid first-person perspective on the circumstances which lead to her election upset. Among the explanations she explores is what Clinton believes to be the nation’s enduring sexism. In an interview she gave on Today, she referenced a conversation she had with Sheryl Sandburg, who told her: “the research is absolutely clear: The more professionally successful a man becomes, the more likable he is. The more professionally successful a woman becomes, the less likable she is.”

But in another interview with Vox, Clinton also blamed women themselves, claiming that women tend to look to the men in their lives to determine their votes. She described women as “quite politically dependent on their view of their own security and own position in society and what works for them,” which, she believes, the men in their lives exploited, convincing women not to vote for her, the candidate who was about to “get locked up.”

Journalists, feminists and women’s rights activists have since come out criticizing Clinton for her “double-edged use of sexism”–that is, for blaming her election loss on sexism, while also employing sexist remarks herself (suggesting that women are incapable of thinking and acting independently from men) to explain the loss.

This type of contradiction is typically referred to as double speak, and it is something we have come to expect from our politicians. But it also points to a conundrum unique to women, who, if they want to be successful politicians, are expected to abide by the rules of a political system designed by men for men, which has historically marginalized and excluded women (remember, 100 years ago women still didn’t have the right to vote). Whatever your opinions might be of Clinton’s politics or her person, this political paradox has haunted her her entire career, making the kind of “straight talk” so admired in other politicians perhaps not impossible, but definitely tricky.


I bring up Hillary Clinton not to make any kind of political point, but to start a conversation about history, and how, long after we have renounced them, the attitudes, biases, and prejudices of the past continue to shape the present and possibilities for the future.

Like politics, language itself is infused with cultural biases that often favor men, and women can easily find themselves trapped within a similar linguistic paradox, using words and phrases that may undermine their own beliefs and may be bias or discriminatory toward themselves and other women.

In a recent presentation I gave to the Archery Club–a group at Cake & Arrow that meets monthly to talk and strategize around the challenges we face as women in the workplace–I discussed how language at once reflects cultural biases and creates them, and how we, as women in the workplace, might choose our words more wisely, and use language that empowers gender equality rather than reinforces old stereotypes–while also empowering ourselves.

Language Reflects Cultural Biases

As languages evolve, they tend to take on the attitudes and beliefs of the societies and cultures who speak and write them. If a culture has a history of sexism or racism, for instance (as almost every culture does), this is likely to be reflected in the language. In an article he wrote for the Guardian, David Shariatmadari took a look that the deep sexism embedded in the English language, writing that “language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.”

Looking at the history of our own language, we can see clear evidence of how our culture has historically perceived women. For example, pejoration, the linguistic process through which positive or neutral words take on increasingly negative meanings over time, is much more likely to occur with words pertaining to women (as opposed to men). The words mistress, madam, courtesan, and even hussy, for instance, were all once words used to describe women of high class or stature within society or their homes. These words have since taken on additional or entirely new meanings, all relating to deviant sexual behavior. For example, in addition to being a word used to address a woman of high rank, madam now also means the head of a brothel while the word courtesan, which used to refer to a woman who attends the court of a monarch, is used exclusively to refer to a prostitute.

So as women, to use these words with the intent of invoking the negative connotations they have taken on, is to participate in the sexist attitudes from which their meaning is derived. Examples of this kind of sexism in language abound, and without a deep understanding of the history language and the etymology of words it can at times be difficult to navigate the english language to ensure we are not reinforcing these kinds of ideas and negative stereotypes.

Language Also Shapes Cultural Biases

While language reflects our cultural biases, it also continues to shape them. To illustrate this point, each woman in the Archery Club was asked to take what is called the Gender-Career IAT, a test developed by Project Implicit designed to evaluate whether a person possesses an implicit gender bias against women with careers. Nearly every woman who took the test showed some kind of association with women and family vs. men and careers (there were 1 or 2 exceptions), while no one in the room actually professed to believe that a woman belonged in the home, not in the workplace. Such results point to the gap between beliefs and biases, and how, despite our best efforts, we can inherit the cultural biases embedded in language.

In addition to the linguistic norms and specific meanings of words that have evolved over time, the very grammatical structure of language–the skeleton upon which all communication in a language is built–project certain concepts of gender. The social category of gender is reflected in the grammatical structures of nearly all languages, and these structures have been shown to influence how gender equality plays out in society.

There are three common types of grammatical structures in language that pertain to gender:

  • Grammatical Gender Language: In these kinds of languages, every noun is assigned a gender and dependent forms must agree with the gender of the noun. Grammatical gender languages also use gender pronouns (he/she) to describe people and their relationship to things.
  • Natural Gender Language: In natural gender languages, nouns do not have gender markers. For example, in English, the word apple is neither a masculine or feminine noun, and therefore dependent forms do not need to “agree” with the gender of the noun. Natural gender languages, like English, do, however, use gender specific pronouns.
  • Genderless Language: In genderless languages, there is no gender in the noun system and there are no gender specific pronouns. Turkish is an example of a genderless language.

study conducted in 2011 looked at 111 countries that used gendered, natural gender, and genderless language to determine if there was a relationship between grammatical structure and gender equality. The study found that of the countries studied, those where natural gender and genderless languages were spoken were more likely to see higher rates of gender equality than those where gendered languages were spoken, suggesting there is indeed a relationship between language and the experience of gender within societies.

Such findings suggest that the ways we use language to describe ourselves and one another can have a tangible impact on gender equality in society, and that exploring how we might challenge grammatical forms to expand our ideas of gender and resist gender stereotypes might be worthwhile.

How can we use language to promote gender equality?

Given the influence that language can have on gender equality, how can women use language to reshape our own concepts of gender and those of society’s?

1. Avoid known “gendered” terminology

2015 study analyzed job listings from hundreds of companies across different industries. Using a list of “gendered words” that was developed through a previous study, the researchers found that job postings in male dominated fields like tech tended to use more masculine words in contrast to female dominated fields, which didn’t use more feminine words, but instead used more “inclusive” words, inviting to both men and women.

This research suggests that language may play an important role in closing the gender gap in certain industries. Organizations and individuals should consider doing research into what constitutes gendered terminology, and should be thoughtful about what kind of language is used in both external and internal communication within an organization.

2. Focus on using more inclusive terminology, as individuals and as a company

On the flip side, studies have shown that some terminology can be more inclusive, inviting to both men and women, without alienating either. Software like Texito can actually help companies screen their own job postings and other content (website copy, emails, blog posts etc.) to determine whether it contains gender bias. It will even provide suggestions for alternative terminology that can help a piece of copy be more inviting to both genders.

Consider updating your positioning, including elevator pitches, boilerplates, and value propositions with these considerations in mind, as well as any existing documentation around how you communicate internally and externally, such as style guides for tone of voice. Be sure to include guidelines as well as suggestions for terminology that demonstrate inclusivity and that accurately reflect your brand.

3. Avoid obviously sexist phrases that paint women or other groups in a derogatory way

As language has evolved over time, certain idioms and phrases that are exclusive of women or downright derogatory have been absorbed into our common workplace vernacular–some of which have become so common place that even the most woke among us can say them without a batting an eye. Phrases like manpower, right-hand man, middleman and man up are phrases used all the time in the workplace, all of which simply ignore the existence of women all together, while also attributing certain positive attributes to men, such as power, force, and strength. At the same time, we often use female oriented phrases to put down, criticize, name-call, or denote weakness. How many times have you heard a self-important boss or colleague, male or female, described as a Prima Donna or a Diva? Or a naysayer described as a Debbie Downer?

Avoiding these types of phrases can be tough, especially when you have been saying them for years. One trick I use is to try and reverse the associations from time to time, to even things out. For instance, I’ll make a point of talking about the need for more women power, especially when I know the people likely to be recruited to a project are going to be women. Or I’ll try to neutralize the phrases, by saying things like human power, or middleperson. Such phrases may seem awkward or even funny at first, but if you make a concerted effort as a company to encourage such efforts, these phrases too can become common place, and can in turn move the needle on transforming the sexist attitudes associated with such phrases.

4. Rethink your use of pronouns

As speakers of a natural gender language, using gender-specific pronouns is an important means of identification, especially when we are speaking hypothetically, as we often do in our industry about “users.” When doing so, we frequently commit the fallacy of referring to certain types of users as he and others as she. I personally have been witness to the ways in which this can serve to reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, having worked in the field of education technology for several years, we were often discussing hypothetical teachers and school administrators. I quickly became aware of how some people at my company defaulted to referring to the teachers as she and administrators as he, inadvertently placing the “hes” in positions of power over the “shes.” The subtle sexism reflected in this kind gendering of users by means of pronouns works in tandem with a thousand other subtleties of language to reinforce a world in which men maintain power over women.

Interestingly, recent research has shown the frequency of female pronouns found in writing–a figure which has been steadily on the rise in recent years (at least in the English speaking world)–bears a relationship to the status of women in society. As Jean M. Twenge, the author of a recent study put it, “the gender pronoun ratio was significantly correlated with indicators of U.S. women’s status such as educational attainment, labor force participation, and age at first marriage as well as women’s assertiveness, a personality trait linked to status. Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. The results suggest that cultural products such as books mirror U.S. women’s status and changing trends in gender equality over the generations.”

So what can you do? Well, first of all, try and use female pronouns more often. As of 2005, male pronouns were still used two times more frequently in writing than female pronouns. Similar to my suggestion above, I sometimes try and use female pronouns to invert the kind of sexism I see deployed in language. For example, when talking about politicians and executives and other people of power hypothetically, I will often use the pronoun “she,” as a reminder to myself and others that women can be in positions of power too. Another option is to opt for gender-neutral pronouns, which, while they can be vague, can help us avoid falling into the the pronoun traps I’ve described.

5. Use gender-neutral pronouns and language

In 2015, the word “they”–used as a gender-neutral pronoun–was voted word of the year by the American Dialect Society. What was once considered a grammatically incorrect use of a plural pronoun, “they”, used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has gained official status, and is now considered grammatically correct. So official you could even use it in an essay for your English class. This official recognition represents a not-so-small victory for individuals who reject the traditional gender binary, and do not identify as “he” or “she,” but it is also an opportunity for all of us to be more inclusive of one another, and more included ourselves. For while using the word “they” as a singular pronoun can be a means of avoiding the kind of sexist stereotyping that can emerge from the careless use of the pronouns “he” and “she,” “they” is also an inclusive pronoun, which can encompass any person, of any gender identification, and help create a more inclusive workplace where everyone–men, women, the non-binary gendered– feels heard, seen, and valued, regardless of gender.

While the status of women in society has without a doubt improved over the past century, and specifically the past decade, there are still countless ways in which women and other groups marginalized for their gender experience inequality, in the workplace and elsewhere. The recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein that have emerged over the last several weeks indicate the great extent to which progress still needs to be made. Choosing our words wisely, and thinking about how they can at once shape and break our biases and stereotypes is a small but important step we can all take toward making the workplace and society at large a safe and empowering place for all human beings.

You can download my full Archery Club presentation here.

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