“Hey guys, let’s get some beers after work on Friday”. It’s the sort of innocent phrase you might hear at any number of workplaces.
“Great,” you think, “an office with a social life. Must have a good culture.” But is it really that innocent?
As International Women’s Day comes around once more, it’s a good time to remember that words have implications and, crucially, can also still be a personal and professional barrier to women.
Although society has made progress in recognising and moving away from some of the heavily gendered language of the past (how often do you hear the terms “waitress”, “stewardess” or “hostess” these days?), it’s still too easy to find examples of workplace vernacular that reinforce the unconscious bias that still exists.
Take, for example, recruitment adverts. It’s not difficult to spot examples of language where words are used with gendered associations (terms such as “confident”, “strong” and “decisive”), which can deter female candidates, who have a tendency to only apply for roles where they meet 100% of the requirements (compared with 60% for men). Even innocently highlighting what appear to be desirable attributes in a candidate can find you unintentionally excluding those who might otherwise be ideal applicants.
Things aren’t a lot better once candidates reach the workplace. “Middleman”, “wingman”, “right-hand man” are still commonly used terms – and all, you’ll note, carry positive connotations of indispensability. Just as commonly used are negative (and undeniably feminine) terms such as “drama queen” or “prima donna”.
Subconsciously, such language reinforces stereotypes that men are agentic; they get things done and are high achievers, while women… well, they’re just hard work. Consider for instance, the difference between “posterboy” and “mean girl”.