Gender-neutral language in the workplace

I wrote an article on the importance of gender-neutral language in the workplace for UK job-board company Totaljobs. The article considers work-language in a cultural context and the harmful effects of gender-biased usage. Here’s an excerpt:

Studies have shown that when words like man are used generically to refer to people, readers tend to picture men only, not a balance of men and women – let alone women only. Phrases like man’s origin and modern man overlook women’s contributions to civilisation; man-made and man as a verb downplay women’s labour. This kind of language is not harmless: it helps subordinate women in social and political relations. . . .

Language is not neutral or used in a vacuum: it incorporates personal assumptions, social norms, and cultural ideologies. This is why it’s important to consider language critically as a social and political tool and to watch for biases in usage. Language reflects the world it’s used in, but it’s also active in maintaining or redesigning that world. It can be a tool of discrimination or one of empowerment.

You can go here for the rest. Totaljobs commissioned the article as part of research they did on gendered language in job ads. They analysed over 75,000 of their own ads and summarised the results here.

16 Responses to Gender-neutral language in the workplace

  1. bevrowe says:

    People that continue to deny the importance non-gendered usage are stuck with non-political language gone mad.

  2. Great article!! I think this is also important because not everyone feels comfortable with a specific gender, either. Some of that has to do with the connotations of said gender, and I think this is important to be aware of, no matter the situation.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I tried their test, and found (a bit to my surprise) that my text had one female-gendered word, “understanding” (!!??) and no male-gendered word. I chose a text that I didn’t think would reveal me as a male-chauvinist pig, but anyway:

    “At the beginning of the century, the rise of creationism was just a speck on the horizon so far as much of the world was concerned—something for scientists in the USA to worry about, but with little effect on the teaching of biology elsewhere. We were already wrong about that then, but now it is obvious to everyone who does not keep their head in the sand that creationism has become a serious threat to biology teaching everywhere. Chapter 15 deals with this subject.

    “I have included brief biographical sketches of many of the people who have contributed to our understanding of biochemistry and evolution, some of them well-known, like Gregor Mendel, others far less well-known than they deserve to be, like Elizabeth Fulhame, Nettie Stevens, and Marthe Gautier. (It is not by chance that these are all women: If they had been men they would be far better known than they are.)”

    Why do they think “understanding” is female-gendered? Is it only women who are usually regarded as understanding?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wouldn’t worry about it. The word in context (“our understanding of biochemistry”) is clearly gender-neutral. The tool is aimed more at texts like job ads and job descriptions where gendered language can slip in unawares and have negative effects. It’s based on Kat Matfield’s gender decoder, which you can read more about here.

  4. jamie says:

    Really encouraging to see them tackling this. One thing it doesn’t take into account is the different connotations a word may have in male or female contexts. For example, they list “outspoken” as male-gendered word. But it might be more significant that it is seen as a positive factor in men but a negative characteristic in women.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good point. A lot of words – and behaviours – are perceived as neutral in men but carry negative associations when they come from women, thanks to patriarchal stereotypes.

  5. astraya says:

    Many years ago, one of my nephews or nieces had a child’s A-Z book of occupations, with a photo or drawing of a person doing that. It was very obvious that every occupation which was traditionally gendered, was gender-flipped in this book.

  6. astraya says:

    I went to a women’s cricket match yesterday. In men’s games, the players of the batting side are called ‘batsmen’. In women’s games, they are called ‘batters’.

  7. bevrowe says:

    To go slightly off-thread: ‘widow’ is not workplace language but is interesting because it is the female sense that is unmarked.

    ‘Widow’ has always been applicable to men though that sense is mainly regional now. The OED has a quote for 2003 but ‘widower’ has been the ‘accepted’ word since the 14th c. or so.

    I can’t offhand think of any other words which are female if unmarked. Certainly none which do not have some intrinsic ‘female’ connotation.

    It may be worth noting that -‘er’, which is virtually identical to ‘-or’ (apart from etymology), has no female counterpart equivalent to ‘-tress’. So perhaps non-gendered terms can be created by simply using, say, ‘acter’ rather than ‘actor’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, there aren’t many such pairs. Another that comes to mind is bride and bridegroom. Jane Mills, in Womanwords, also mentions prostitute and male prostitute in this regard.

      • bevrowe says:

        Yes, but neither of those have an semantically-neutral male suffix: “groom” and “male” are words in their own right acting as descriptors rather than as modifiers.
        Interestingly, the OED etymology for widower crossrefers to ” -er suffix1″ but the article on -er makes no reference to this particular use. It may be unique.

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