Gender-inclusive English at work

If English is not your native language, you might not be super sure how to use gender-inclusive language when speaking or writing it. Why is this important? When at work, I want (and need) to be seen first for my skills, not for my gender.

Here are three specific scenarios I’ve been asked about or seen often.

Scenario 1: we’re talking about skills a job candidate should have. How should we refer to this theoretical person?
Scenario 2: I want to greet a group of people so that none of them feel excluded.
Scenario 3: I want to talk to or about a woman / a group of women at work and I’m not sure what word to use.

Scenario 1 – the job candidate
Traditional: He should be a quick thinker. The man in this role will have to make fast decisions.

Why is this important? I want to avoid making assumptions about the probable gender of people in a particular role (e.g. pilots are men, nurses are women) because it leads to implicit biases in hiring and in work culture.

The easiest way is to replace ‘he’ with ‘he/she’, which follows a gender binary. I find no harm in stepping up our inclusivity and using non-gendered words.

Your better options are:

  • They should…
  • The candidate should…
  • The person in this role…
  • Someone in this role…
  • The <job title> in this role, e.g. the developer in this role, the vice president in this role

Scenario 2 – addressing a mixed group
Not inclusive: Hello, gentlemen! Hey my dudes! What’s up, bros! Hey guys!
And also not inclusive: Hey girls! Hi, ladies!

Have you ever seen anyone address a mixed group as collectively feminine? Nah. But the masculine was the default for so long that it doesn't yet feel as wrong to still address a mixed group as "dudes".

Why is this important? If someone is a minority in a group and someone else assumes that the group consists of the majority, or that they can safely ignore the minority in favor of the majority, the minority feels “othered” – singled out as different, and less safe voicing their opinions. It’s a signal, whether intentional or not, that they don’t belong in the group.

Better options:

  • Hey team!
  • G’morning, group!
  • Hello everyone
  • Hi everybody
  • Hey y’all (for a little Southern US flair!)
I still say “Hey guys” because where I’m from, it’s used for everybody. That’s not true for everywhere, because it's not gender neutral - nobody who says "I like guys" also means to include women. I'm working on cutting back.

Some people use “Hey gentlemen and lady!” if they’ve noticed that there is exactly one woman in the audience. This sucks. It draws attention to her and singles her out in a way which can be uncomfortable. Same thing for awkward inclusivity like “guys and gals” or “dudes and dudettes”. Just pick the broader option to start with and you won’t end up sounding like a cheesy sitcom dad from the ’80s.

Scenario 3 – women or girls?
Please don’t say: I talked to the girls in accounting. The girls on my team will take care of it.

Why is this important? It seems so harmless; after all, you could also say “the boys on the team.” However, historically this kind of language and the attitudes behind it have been used as an excuse not to take women at work seriously. Even if you have the purest of intentions, why would you want to feed that culture? Just use better language!

This means if you are talking about a female-presenting person over 18 in a work context, she’s a woman. “Girls” is for children, or used by a group of women who are referring to themselves (preferably in a social context).

Better:

  • I talked to the people in accounting…
  • I talked to the accounting team…

To sum up, words do matter. The intention behind your words also matters, which means I expect to both give and receive forgiveness when mistakes happen. It takes time to learn new habits, especially if English is not your native language and you learned the old-fashioned way in school or classes.

Comments

  1. Jim Grey

    I’ve been in the industry long enough that mores have changed more than once in my time. I’ve adapted fairly well. But when it comes to gender-neutral language, I have always struggled, and will continue to struggle, to not say “guys” to mean “group of people.” I’ve been called on the carpet a few times for that.

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