Skip to Page Content

Respect for Gender and Using Gender-Inclusive Language in the Workplace

    Keep an open mind about the relevance of today's language about gender, how we see or perceive others, and how HR leaders can promote good use of gender-inclusive language in the workplace.

    There is no political inclination about this blog, but I would like to mention the recent promotion of Kamala Harris, as the first "female" (she has reacted to her gender herself) who will serve as Vice President of the United States and who has "shattered the glass ceiling", as many have said. In 2015, an article in the HuffPost wrote about a [female] CEO who said, ...women "shouldn't be president because of different hormones" and "With the hormones we have, there is no way [a woman] should be able to start a war," and "Yes I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the President, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man." Critique that for a moment. In response to her unwarranted assertion, all wars have been started by males around the world. Also, this blog isn't about Kamala Harris, obviously, she is not the President of the United States, it is about respect for gender and other directives for the language we use when referring to gender. 

    Respect for gender has increased over the years and women in leadership positions are no longer being stereotyped for the stigma that comes along with gender but rather for the capacity, capability, and qualification that is observed through the job performance of an individual. Aside from compliance with affirmative action, equal employment opportunity, and diversity and inclusion policies at work, human resource professionals tasked with maintaining employee relations programs may find that the topic of preventing discrimination in the workplace includes using language that is gender-inclusive. A training and development program about prevention may also include a guide to using the right pronouns when addressing others in the office. Asking about someone's pronouns demonstrates that you care about addressing them correctly. For example, "I was just wondering how you'd like me to address you" is one way to promote the gender-inclusive language. Avoid singling out someone because they 'look trans' when addressing someone.

    Here's a scenario where an employee is being gender-specific and is using pronouns that can be problematic on multiple fronts:

    You are gathered around the copy machine one afternoon with a group of three female co-workers when Jose says, "You missed a great story Janie told while we were manning the job fair table yesterday. No seriously, dude, she's so funny." 

    Sounds normal enough. But read it over again and see if you can spot all the ways Jose might have unintentionally made people feel excluded or uncomfortable. He probably didn't mean to insult any of his co-workers, including Janie, but the language he chose - referring to a mixed group of "you guys", using the gendered term "manning" instead of a neutral one like "staffing", and calling someone by the pronouns (e.g. dude) - may have done just that. At work, adopting language that is more gender-inclusive means that your organization is treating all of your co-workers, clients, customers, and any other professional contacts with respect. 

    The software engineer, Elden Seropian at Asana provides tips on using gender-inclusive language to create a workplace where every individual can thrive. Elden co-founded the employee resource group Team Rainbow, to support the LGBTQ + community and has said, "An integral part of helping employees thrive is creating a space where every individual feels they can bring their full selves to work." In supportive environments, small tweaks can lead to better communication for everyone. Also, beware of other gendered languages. 

    Other gendered languages can include pronouns that we use on a regular basis. You often hear, "Come on ladies, it's time to go!" or "Welcome aboard, sir!" pointing out that it sounds polite, but can backfire when an individual does not identify as the gender reference. Instead, why not say, "Welcome aboard!" or "Come on, it's time to go!" leaving out the gendered language. Elden suggests the following: 

    • Instead of "you guys," try "you all," "folks," "friends," "everyone," or "people"
    • Instead of "dude", "man," or "bro," "chick," "girl," how about no replacement necessary? 
    • Instead of "ladies and gentlemen," try "everyone," "all,", or nothing at all
    • Instead of "men and women," try "people," "employees," or "workers"
    • Instead of "man-hours," "man the door," "manpower," etc., try "staff" or "staff the door," "people hours,", etc. 
    • Instead of "fireman," "congressman," and "waitress, " try "firefighter," "legislator," and "server" (and the same extends to all professions)

    Understanding that it is easier said than done, correcting yourself means you have to dedicate to using more inclusive language and mistakes are bound to happen. Ditching old habits and training yourself (or others in a company professional development training program) to adopt new behaviors - including using gender-inclusive language - doesn't happen at the drop of a "woke" hat. It's a work in progress.

    To circle back, the main point is to support each other by changing the way we react to one another when we refer to gender, each of our capabilities, and eliminating the stereotype of each. Remove the gender-specific language that can be explicit to others. All employees play a role in creating a respectful culture, avoiding harassment, and fostering a workplace culture where everyone's responsibility is to practice inclusion in everyday practices. 

    Blog Contributor: Sandra Charles-Garza, MS-HRM, PHR, SHRM-CP

    Diversity Director, SHRM RGV 390