A Practical Guide to Gender Neutral Language at Work

Cat Wildman & Nicole Ponsford 2019

If you don’t take gender into account when choosing to work with colleagues, recruiting or promoting then you are probably already gender neutral at work. Adapting your language to be inline with your gender neutral views is the natural next step. In order to make real inroads into closing the gender pay gap and ending gender imbalance at work, gender neutral needs to be a language that we all become comfortable with. We’ve pulled a wealth of resources together into 10 ways to de-gender language at work.

 
 

1. Political correctness? Go with it.

As soon as the terms “gender” and “neutral” come out there are eyes that roll, eyebrows that shoot into hairlines, and worst of all, minds that close. One of the first utterances in objection to Gender Neutral (anything) is that it’s “political correctness gone mad”.

Once a group of people have rejected a term used to describe them, and asked that a different term be used instead, Political Correctness is simply respecting that request. It’s dangerous to pick and choose which terms we will move with the times on, and which we feel is a step too far, or “political correctness gone mad”.

Marta, a Business Analyst said “One of my colleagues says things that are offensive to women on a regular basis, for example he calls our Parents Group at work a “mothers’ meeting” and refers to paternity leave as “golf holiday”. I told him it was extremely insensitive and also sexist (he has children and a wife who works!) but he sweeps all our objections away by saying “it was only a joke, where’s your sense of humour?” and that everything is “political correctness gone mad”. “

Career-wise, using outdated terms, that people have told you is offensive, is dicing with your own success. Is the language that you are wedded to really worth the risk of being branded a dinosaur, or worse, a sexist?

 

 

2. Address the dinosaur in the room

Knowing that you are running the risk of unwittingly offending people can be a terrifying feeling. Explain that to your colleagues and be open. Say that you are a strong believer in Gender Equality and that you are trying, but that old habits die hard, and sometimes you may make mistakes.

Project Manager Sita said “I saw the perfect example of this when a colleague and I set up the first ever Women in Technology group at our company. About fifty percent of the attendees at the first meeting were male. We went around the room and asked everyone to say what they were hoping to get from being in the group. One man stood up, and said “I’m a dinosaur. I have only ever worked with men and computers. I love having so many new people in the team, having women around has really changed things for the better, but I’m scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, so, I’m here to learn”. A load of the other men agreed and it broke down so many barriers. After that we all felt totally comfortable giving the men in the group feedback - and asking for their feedback in return.

Being open to feedback is crucial to knowing when you are unwittingly transgressing. Tell people you’d like them come and talk to you if something you have said or done has caused offence, and that you will make every effort to address it.

Administrator Ellen said “I knew a guy at work who addressed everyone, men, women, everyone as “lads”. He’d say “I’ll go and ask the lads downstairs” or “hi lads” when we were a mixed group. I went to him in private and told him I thought it was weird and a little sexist to call everyone lads, and he was mortified. He said that where he grew up everyone (male and female) had always used “lads” as a term to mean “everyone”. He said he used it the same way I used “guys”. He didn’t stop saying “lads”, instead he stood up at our next team meeting and explained his use of the word and said that it was used in the same way as “guys” and was meant to refer to everyone. He asked that if anyone found it too offensive, to please tell him and he would try to change, no one did, I think because he’d explained what he meant by it. I now do that exact same thing when I join a new team to explain my use of the word “guys”.

 

 

3. Try not to default to gendered pronouns

Defaulting to gendered pronouns and referring to humans in general in the masculine is a subtle but very real way to send messages to women and girls that they are not considered relevant to the situation.

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Startup Founder Amy says “I was in a talk about the future of Technology the other day, the person giving the talk was an active advocate of gender equality in Technology. This I know for a fact, but the whole way through their talk, they defaulted to male pronouns. They did it so much that I started making a note of them.

“And the blokes making this stuff are convinced it’s going to work”

“These guys are smart; I mean they are super smart guys”

“It takes a lot of man-power to achieve something like that”

“You get a guy that has a huge success and his investors are more likely to back him again”

“There’s an investor somewhere sitting in his office rubbing his hands”

“It took something like 72 man-days of work”

“Elon Musk and the guys who will follow him”

“We’ll be putting more men in space”

It could definitely be argued that as a female founder, I am more tuned in than most and consciously picked up the constant male assumptions where maybe others didn’t - but that’s the danger. If I hadn’t been conscious of it, I am sure I would have left that talk about The Future of Technology with a subliminal message floating round my brain: The future of Technology is blokes, men, man, guys, him, his.

It was bad enough that the auditorium was filled with a pretty equal mix of women and men in Technology. If that auditorium had been filled with children or young people, what message would they have taken from these constant male assumptions and references?”

In the example above the person giving the talk didn’t mean anything sinister by it - defaulting to male pronouns and collective terms is an ingrained behaviour but if we are going to close the gaping STEM gender gaps, we must change our language to let females know that careers in STEM fields, although currently male-dominated, are needed and wanted.

 

 

4. Prioritise equality over being technically, grammatically correct

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When the topic of gender in language is brought up, there’s sometimes a cohort of people who grasp for the fact that defaulting to the masculine singular is actually, technically grammatically correct.


If someone is reaching for their copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology to make a point about why people shouldn’t be offended by their use of language - they’ve missed the point entirely. There are many terms in dictionaries that we would never dream of using in common language because we know them to be offensive. Let pragmatism and a drive for equality override the need to be technically grammatically correct.

 

 

5. Gender Neutralise Job Titles

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Fireman (Firefighter), Policeman (Police Officer), Businessman (Business Person), Air hostess (Cabin Crew)...gendered job titles send messages to women and girls - or boys and men - that they are excluded from the roles. Old habits die hard and everyone slips up from time to time, but sticking resolutely to outdated gendered job titles like “fireman” and dismissing gender neutral alternatives as “political correctness gone mad” sends out a clear signal that you are behind the times, or worse, refusing to catch up on purpose.

Firefighter Agnes said “Gender neutral job titles exist so we can start to include both genders in the role, we need them in the pipeline as we are facing massive shortages. The furore that erupted when Dany Cotton [the first female commissioner of the London Fire Brigade] quite reasonably requested people stop saying “Fireman” and start saying “Firefighter” as part of the LFB’s #FirefightingSexism campaign shows just how much work we still have to do to convince people that what they are doing by refusing to change, is damaging the pipeline. I doubt if their house was on fire and they didn’t get a response for over an hour, they would be so set on excluding females from feeling welcome in the Fire and Rescue Service.

If you’d prefer to be set apart from the people arguing with women about why their job title should be “man” then it’s worth making an effort to get up to speed on gender neutral job titles.

 

 

6. Avoid referring to groups by their gender

The quick answer is “women” or “female/s” or “men” or “male/s”depending on the context, but ask yourself first if you need to refer to their sex at all.

As a general rule of thumb, referring to women as “girls”, especially in a corporate environment is a no-no. It can be seen as patronising and infantilising. Referring to women as “ladies” at work should also be avoided as it can also be seen as patronising, plus the word “lady” comes loaded with all sorts of gender assumptions.

“I think we’d all agree that the Marketing girls have done a great job, let’s give them a round of applause”

This sounds patronising, even coming from a female. The people in Marketing are women, not girls, and it would be better not to mention their sex at all in this context. Switching “girls” for “ladies” or “women” is equally unnecessary and begs the question why you need to refer to their sex at all.

“I think we’d all agree that the Marketing Team have done a great job, let’s give them a round of applause”

The change of a word makes all the difference and there is absolutely no need to call attention to the fact that they are all female in this context.

If you really do need to refer to people’s sex (“Rachel is organising the first Women in Technology event this Thursday” “Some of the females in the room were offended by the use of the term “girls” to describe them”) then women or female/s is fine.

 

 

7. Group people by other things than their gender

TFL recently dropped “ladies and gentlemen” from their announcement lexicon in favour of the more inclusive “hello everyone”. Some schools are starting to pick up on the fact that continually mentioning people’s sex is unnecessary.  At work the terms “all”, “team”, “everyone”, “people” and even “folks” can cover most, if not every group situation.

Engineer Jen says “Having always worked in mostly male environments I’m constantly on emails and in meetings that begin “Gents...and Jen” or “Gentlemen...and lady”. On the surface it draws immediate and unnecessary attention to the fact that I am a different sex to everyone else and indeed highlights the fact that I am the only woman there. Deeper down it makes me feel like an afterthought or an inconvenience (having to alter what you wanted to say to add me) and it makes me wonder if the company is just paying lip service to becoming gender inclusive.

In my emails I would begin “Hi all” and in meetings “hello everyone” (why mention sex?) and I asked my line manager to do the same and explained to him how I felt. He indicated that I was being oversensitive and said that people were just trying to be polite.

The company is always talking about being inclusive (its one of our values!) but if we can’t change something as simple as this, how are we ever going to progress?”.

 

 

8. Steer clear of gendered terms of endearment

Love / mate / darling / lad...This one is all about context and there are a large number of people who take umbrage at having what is meant as a kindly or affectionate term rejected. That is understandable, and changing this one all depends on your priorities. If your priority is to continue using a particular term you are deeply wedded to then in exchange, you must accept the risk that you will, at times, exclude people and possibly be branded a bit of a dinosaur (or worse, a sexist).

Eve, a recruiter said “I had a boss once that referred to all the men in the team as “mate” and me as Eve. I used to make him laugh more than any other member of the team, he used to ask me for advice all the time, but I didn’t qualify as “mate” because I was a woman. I would never be “mate” no matter how much more of a mate I actually was than some of the men on the team. No only did I not feel included, it made it patently obvious, despite everything he would say to the contrary, that my sex would never be an afterthought or irrelevant for him. It made me wonder, how else does he treat me differently than the men on the team? Am I paid less? Does he not put me forward for opportunities? He may well have treated me the same in every single other regard, but the continued use of that word, always made me wonder.”

 

 

9. Beware of gendered jokes and “innocent” gendered phrases

“it was a complete ballache”, “it turned into a pissing contest”, “she’s a bit of a ballbreaker”, “It’s going to go tits up”. Most people have heard some, if not all of these phrases at work, but in using phrases like these, even in a casual context, you could be giving off sexist signals.

Evelina, a CEO said “I was on the phone to a Head of Talent once, who was trying to recruit me for an executive position at his company. We were talking about the psychometric testing that would be done as part of the recruitment process and I mentioned that I always got the same result, no matter what type of test it was (he didn’t ask what result I got). He then went on to describe the result categories in their particular psychometric test, and when he came to the one that I knew I would be, he described it as “the typical alpha male”. When I said that this was the result I was probably going to get in the test, he immediately tried to backtrack saying “well of course as a senior woman you need to have alpha male qualities to succeed...”. I didn’t attend the interview. I did send him an email advising him to drop his use of the term alpha male and to follow the link I’d included about the many many women who get this result on psychometric tests and what it actually means.”

 

 

10. Don’t go near gender-based insults

You’d have to be pretty behind the times not to realise that using gender as an insult is offensive. “Don’t be such a woman”, being “like a girl”, “don’t get your knickers in a twist” and the like can all be viewed as offensive.

Alexander, a senior salesperson says “Working in automobile sales, it was always quite a male dominated environment. I had a colleague who would always refer to us as females at every opportunity he’d say “right ladies” to a group of men, which is obviously insulting to both women and the men. Sexism at work goes both ways, I’ve herd women say things like “he’s got small man syndrome”, “leave the boys to their pissing contest”, “he needs to grow a pair” or “he needs to strap on a pair” and these are all offensive to men. I am offended by them. I would never dream of telling a female to strap on a pair of ovaries - and for me, it’s not OK for a female to tell a man to strap on a pair of balls either.  

If you’re keen not to appear sexist at work, we’d recommend avoiding gender-based insults at all costs.