Recently, I had the chance to facilitate a WeCan (Women's Empowerment and Career Advancement Network) Discussion Circle about gender-inclusive language in the workplace. In researching the topic, I learned a lot about my own habits, assumptions, and also gave a lot of thought to the importance of being aware of how the words we use can either lift up (or hold back) women, especially in the workplace. For the purposes of our discussion, I was defining inclusive language as:
Language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups.
It is also language that doesn't deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from being seen as part of a group.
It's important to consider that the language we use might unintentionally have the effect of making certain people feel less welcome, even if it is not our intent. We can't predict the personal impact the words we use might have - so, best to err on the side of inclusion!
I introduced the discussion circle with this video - in it, Win Chesson, then an MBA student at Stanford Business School, shares his personal experiences and reasoning why gender-inclusive language matters:
I thought this was a good place to begin, as it starts with some common examples of male-centric language (Chesson talks about the prevalence of terms like "chairman," "manpower" and the ubiquitous "you guys."). He also brings up a question that I thought would be important to address up-front: is this really an important subject, when there are so many other issues facing women? (Hint: YES!). The part I enjoyed most about this video was when Chesson paraphrased the ideas of radical feminist theorist Marilyn Frye to describe how sexism is like a birdcage, made up of many different wires. Individually, any one wire does not contain the bird - it's the collection of the wires that makes the cage.
The group-viewing of the video prompted a lively discussion, and attendees tackled topics like intent vs. result, the 'laziness' of using male-centric language when there are many simple alternatives, tactics for addressing colleagues who exclude with language, and even shared their international perspectives.
Finally, I wrapped up the discussion by sharing five practical tips on how we can each take steps today to make our written and spoken language more inclusive:
Here are some additional readings and helpful resources on this topic:
- Inclusive Language in Four Easy Steps (Harvard University)
- Gender Neutral Language in the Workplace (Power to Fly)
- Word Matter: Guidelines for Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace (British Columbia Public Service)
- Inclusive Language Guide (State Government of Victoria, Australia)
These tips can help anyone, regardless of gender, practice more inclusive language. Lead by example, and when you see gendered language impacting your workplace, offer up some of these simple suggestions to correct it. Doing so may have a greater impact on those around you than you know!