In these days of focus on diversity and inclusion, it really was quite mindboggling to recently read about a communications disaster from a large, very well-known organization. In case you missed it, in summary, most of the communication was a derogatory and demeaning tirade towards the employer’s female employees that critiqued issues ranging from the way that women should talk to their intellectual capacity. Whatever the organization was trying to communicate to the masses (hopefully something quite different than what was presented) was quickly lost by the howls of protest. Understandably, this is not the way that most employers want to be perceived by their workforce, and this organization has been publicly taken to task for its lack of inclusive attitude.
The point here is that gender neutral language can be quite the challenge for even the best of us. It is hard to reprogram centuries of bias in writing techniques and communication processes. But it is not impossible. By carefully choosing the words that one uses, your point can be communicated in a respectful and inclusive manner.
Since elementary school, we have all been programed to write with pronouns. They have been the “noun’s shortcut” and quite handy in cutting down on wordy sentences. But pronouns, at least the way that they have historically been used, are very limited in their context. Today, people are identified in more diverse concepts than he or she or him or hers. For this reason, traditional pronoun usage can easily be antiquated and offensive.
It is important to understand the “why” behind gender neutral language. Stereotypical concepts and unconscious bias are deeply ingrained in all of us, but most tenaciously in the language that we use. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that those friendly people that help you when you are flying were referred to as stewardesses. Further, these stewardesses could only look at certain way, dress a certain way, speak a certain way, and, most importantly, be a certain gender. After many years of battle, both in and out of court, these people are now identified as flight attendants and can be any gender. The only requirement is that they are competent with their job duties. By changing the very language that we use to identify these job positions, the expectations of who could do the job was expanded and diversified.
Or, another way to put it, words have power.
Changing a lifetime of writing and grammar training can be a bit daunting. Most of us write reflexively as our minds automatically recall the strict lessons of our youth. You don’t have to throw those lessons away; only tweak them a little bit. Here are some examples how to do this in workplace communications.
While many of the above examples may appear simplistic to some, for others these examples have been a linguistic challenge. Many of the phrases can be found in common documents that are provided to applicants and employees. Most employers do not mean offense. They’re just copying boilerplate language that they happened to find somewhere else or it’s what they’ve always used to get their point across.
Please keep in mind that gender neutral language does not require you to burn all your current policies and handbooks in the parking lot. But, to proactively promote an open and safe workplace, you must be willing to look at these old texts in a new light. For some employers, this may mean a choice to retroactively change their past communications. For others, it may mean a commitment to make changes going forward. The point is, most employers likely will need to determine if they need to modify their message.
Plus, one must keep in mind that there is a realistic legal element involved in our language usage. Gender stereotyping, including language usage, can be a form of gender discrimination. If an employer is aware that the language used in their policies, procedures, and other documents that are relied upon for workplace behavior is gender biased or stereotypical, that employer is likely putting themselves at risk for a complaint or lawsuit. This is especially true if the employer has been put on notice, repeatedly, that their language is not gender appropriate.
Gender neutral language has had a dramatic effect on the way that we talk to each other. We remember to be verbally attentive, but, as you can see, we must also remember to be equally attentive in our written language. Our companion article from Workforce Technology provides employers with considerations and technological workarounds for handling gender bias and identification. Clients with access can contact the Hotline with questions about employee communications, gender discrimination or other HR issues.
During the White House’s Summit on Working Families on June 24, 2014, President Obama indicated he was signing a presidential memorandum requiring every federal agency to address flexible work schedules and give employees the right to request such schedules. Absent what could be a dramatic increase in workplace flexibility for federal employees, it is undeniable that the demand for flexibility and work-life balance is on the rise.
Public health insurance exchanges have a head start over private exchanges, but in the coming years, employer and employee awareness will increase, and soon the private options should receive the recognition and utilization they deserve.
Send a Message
Find a Location