“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”.
The trope extends to how we’re titled in the workplace. Your business may refer to certain senior leaders as chief, chief executive, chief finance officer, chief operating officer, and so on. But the synonyms of “chief” include “headman”, “master”, “lord” and other military derivations – all of which are male or carry masculine connotations.
Even a seemingly innocent term like “guys” carries an excluding weight. Google its meaning, and the first synonym you’re presented with is “man” (followed by “fellow” and “gentleman”). That laudable suggestion about getting the “guys” together for beers after work on Friday suddenly doesn’t sound quite so inclusive.
Language, though, can be used to empower as well as to discriminate. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I believe we should all grasp the opportunity to consider what we say and remember an ingrained bias can hold people back, and exclude talent from progression. Embracing diversity and inclusion is more than having gender-neutral bathrooms and the freedom to identify as non-binary (good though these are). It’s about considering the everyday parlance of the workplace, and the way that the words we use codify roles and limit opportunity.
There are tools such as gender decoders which can help neutralise bias in your job adverts, role profiles and interview questions, and HR managers are now much more sensitive to this issue. But this has to be a leadership consideration as well.
It’s great there are more women in senior roles in travel now, and that the industry recognises there is a gender pay gap. There are many other examples we can point to too, where our sector is taking positive steps towards equality.
But it’s worth remembering words speak just as loudly as actions. Our industry won’t use a language it doesn’t hear. Recognising that gendered language pervades our workspaces can be the catalyst for lasting change.
Flora Richardson is a director at Wander, which is committed to building a modern and exciting travel industry by finding new ways of connecting employers and employees.