Gendered language is everywhere.
Think about it. What would you call someone filming a movie? Or what about the person who gives you your morning weather report?
If you said camera operator and meteorologist, then well done! But for many people, their gut reaction goes straight to ‘cameraman’ and ‘weatherman’—some might even say ‘weather girl’.
It’s not your fault that you’re more familiar with the gendered terms—you grew up with them, after all. But it’s widely recognised that there’s a better, fairer, and safer way of doing things.
So why is gendered language a problem? And what are the benefits of using gender-neutral language at work?
Hold up, what’s gender-neutral language?
Exactly what it says on the tin.
Gender-neutral language takes away assumptions about gender that we’ve built into words and phrases.
And thankfully, for every sex-based term there’s a gender-neutral alternative. So where ‘cameraman’ is gendered, ‘camera operator’ removes the assumption that it’s a male job.
It also involves getting rid of phrases that have a sex-based bias. Sayings like ‘man-up’ and ‘don’t be such a girl’ reinforce outdated stereotypes about gender: that men are (or should be) strong and resilient, whereas women are overly emotional or weak.
Again, there’s always an alternative. You could use ‘toughen up’ instead of either of those phrases, which doesn’t imply a gender.
And then there are pronouns, but we’ll get onto that a little later.
Why it matters for women
Look at the word ‘mankind’. We know the description includes women… so why does it only reference ‘man’?
Most of the time using gender-neutral language means avoiding masculine generic terms. In this example, ‘humankind’ is perfect.
Because when we use words with ‘man’ or ‘men’ for supposedly inclusive terms, we exclude women and automatically praise men.
And that language has critical effects on our society. It reinforces gender stereotypes and makes them more acceptable. That acceptance then leads to gender gaps, like the gender pay gap.
Why it matters for trans folk
For people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, gendered language is a big deal. Particularly their pronouns.
‘Transgender’ is the umbrella term for these individuals. It includes people who identify as the opposite gender they were assigned at birth (trans men and women), as well as people who don’t identify with the male vs female gender binary.
For trans men and women, pronouns are straightforward: usually, it’s he/him/his or she/her/hers.
But for people whose gender identity doesn’t comfortably fit into ‘man’ or ‘woman’, gendered labels aren’t always appropriate. That includes non-binary, genderqueer, agender and bigender individuals (but that’s far from the complete list!).
‘Non-binary’ is an umbrella term for this community, and their pronouns tend to be the gender-neutral ‘they/them/theirs’. It’s best to check what they feel comfortable with before you make assumptions, though.
If you fail to respect a person’s pronouns or gender identity, you’re misgendering them. And that can have a serious effect on their mental health.
Plus, after a landmark tribunal ruling in 2020, non-binary and gender-fluid identities should fall under the ‘gender reassignment’ characteristic, which is protected under the Equality Act 2010. That means you could face legal action for discriminating against trans and non-binary folk at work.
Why it matters for your business
Well, short of a potential lawsuit, gender-neutral language promotes equality and diversity in the workplace.
And according to ACAS, equal and diverse company enjoys benefits like:
• Better innovation, teamwork, and employee engagement.
• A more diverse range of skills.
• Better access to different social, geographical, and cultural markets.
• A stronger brand reputation.
• Attracting and retaining more top talent.
So, it’s important you get your workplace language right, for your business and your staff.
For guidance on issues like this, as well as any other workplace HR issue, give our 24/7 advice line a call. Our trained advisors will happily break down any query into language you can fully understand.
Call one of our friendly, Ireland-based experts today on 1800 279 841.