Updated: May 3, 2021
Times when you might be gatekeeping without even knowing it
Would you describe yourself as assertive and independent, or compassionate and cooperative—or somewhere in between? Research shows that even simple descriptive language is subtly gender-coded—something that can worsen gender inequality in job hiring and workplace advancement.
Language is all around us. It is how we communicate with friends, family, coworkers, random people at the grocery store. And while words can seem like an objective way to express any given thought (like this one!), the truth is they’re deeply and inextricably embedded in systems of values. As the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire said, “language is never neutral.”
The systems that perpetuate gendered language
Two interconnected value systems that inform contemporary English language are the patriarchy (a system where men hold power) and the gender binary (a system that requires all people to fall into one of two opposite and distinct gender identities with separate societal roles). Even if an individual doesn’t believe in the superiority of men or the limitations of the gender binary, the words they use can reflect these larger and historical systems of oppression.
The workplace is one site of ongoing gender inequality—a majority of Americans agree that women don’t have equality with men at work, and most U.S. adults agree that transgender people face discrimination today. For those who wish to challenge that inequality, paying attention to the ways it is enforced and maintained is a small way to shift a culture.
Gendered language as gatekeeping
This inequality can begin even before employment: when an organization publicly posts the description of a position. The job description is an important gatekeeper—a hurdle, and in some cases a person, that bars or limits the access of others—says Danielle Gaucher, Ph.D, associate professor at University of Manitoba, Canada, who has conducted social psychology research on inequality and gendered language in job descriptions. (Note: Gaucher’s research uses the binary categories of men and women to categorize people and language in the workplace.)
“Job ads are one point in which people make the decision to approach or avoid, and so it’s very important to make sure we have the wording right and balanced there, so we’re not dissuading particular groups from applying,” Gaucher says.
Gaucher’s research has found that job descriptions for contemporarily male-dominated jobs like computer programming and engineering use more masculine-coded wording (like decisive and competitive) than female-dominated jobs like early childhood educator and registered nurse. And women see masculine-coded job ads as less appealing than feminine-coded ones, found Gaucher.
“Gendered wording is subtle—the words themselves may not trigger anybody to think, ‘They’re trying to exclude women,’” Gaucher says. “Instead, these kinds of gendered words fly under the radar. People aren’t really aware of them, and that’s partly why they are so insidious. They have the effect of dissuading women from applying to certain jobs but we’re not necessarily always conscious of that happening.”
Because women and gender nonconforming people are underrepresented in many high-status and high-paying fields, it’s a problem that language can act as one (additional) barrier to keep that can serve to keep out women.
“Language can be very powerful in affecting how people think and feel, and affecting what they ultimately approach or disengage from,” says Gaucher, who followed up her 2011 research on this topic with work in 2020 that found that the same issue still exists.
Gaucher urges employers and those responsible for writing job ads to take on the responsibility of making their job descriptions more balanced in terms of gendered language. There are online tools that can help people (both job seekers and job writers) decode any hidden bias in ads. The Gender Decoder by Kat Matfield is one such tool, inspired by Gaucher’s research. Plus, other research shows that gendered language shows up in job performance reviews, the awarding of research funds, and fellowship letters of recommendation.
While getting more job applicants who are not men into the door is a step forward, Gaucher stresses that adjusting wording cannot be the only fix in a workplace that is built on decades of masculine-centered leadership.
“It’s the responsibility of a lot of companies to ensure that the recruitment promises are later met in the corporate culture,” says Gaucher, who added that companies need to follow up by working to make their corporate cultures ones that are positive places for those with marginalized identities to want to work.
The problems with leadership in a male-dominated society
Although Gaucher’s research shows that gender-coded words have a real impact on people’s feelings of belonging and choice in applying for jobs, the underlying issue lies not in the words people use to describe jobs, but rather the type of leadership that is recognized and well-compensated in society.
The types of skills and leadership styles that are traditionally celebrated in Western society are those that align with typical conceptions of men—assertive, task-based, self-reliant. While society recognizes the benefits of being nurturing, empathetic, and interdependent, these attributes aren’t associated with workplace leadership. Research shows that people of all genders see these masculine traits as effective qualities in leadership.
“Because we live in a patriarchy, the way that authority is expected and commanded is very much in a masculine frame. The way we describe who is going to be leading a project, team, or company includes a lot of masculine attributes,” says Bex Mui, a LGBTQ and equity consultant. “Even when we place people who are not cis men in those roles, we often expect these people to perform masculine power.”
Bex provides the alternative model of “femme-centered leadership,” which she defines as a type of collaborative leadership that has distributed power, inviting and prioritizing input from a wide array of people. In a Harvard Business Review article outlining the benefits of “feminine” leadership, Judy Rosener describes this as counter to traditional masculine leadership as one that is interactive, transparent, kind, and enthusiastic.
And, surely, one crucial way to move toward an alternative and non-masculine type of leadership is by hiring more people who are not those that have traditionally held power: cisgender, straight, white, non-disabled men.
Using language to create gender-inclusive workplaces
In a society that still upholds the norm of the gender binary—despite the growing numbers of openly trans and gender nonconforming (including nonbinary and two-spirit) young people in the U.S.—building inclusive and accepting spaces for trans and gender nonconforming people is imperative.
Creating a company culture where people regularly share their pronouns—like she/her, they/them, he/him, ze/hir, whatever term people use to refer to themselves—is one way to support trans and gender nonconforming employees. Hiring a DEI professional to begin a conversation to normalize inclusive language is a first step.
“Bring an expert in to make everyone more aware of the need for inclusion, and pronoun inclusion as a starting point,” says Max Masure, a transgender inclusion strategist who co-founded the Argo Collective, a group that facilitates workshops about inclusion for companies. “Applying real action—like adding pronouns on your email signature and LinkedIn profile—is an entry point in bringing some diversity and inclusion in the company.”
And within workplaces, language that upholds the gender binary abounds—like “ladies and gentlemen.” Alternatives include referring to a group of coworkers as “friends and colleagues” or “esteemed guests.”
Often, workplace language involves guessing a person’s gender identity or pronouns without asking. It is worthwhile to practice language that is not based on gendered assumptions.
Finding ways to express respect without using words that assume a person’s gender can involve creativity—shifting from “yes, sir” to “yes, absolutely” or “yes, it’s a pleasure,” for example. And when calling on someone who you don’t know (“the lady in the red shirt”), it’s a simple fix to say “the person in the red shirt” or “the guest in the red shirt with their hand raised.”
As we work toward equality and fair treatment for all in the workplace, it’s useful to think about all the ways a workplace culture can improve and create better conditions for all employees, especially those without traditional power in the workplace, including women, trans people, and gender nonconforming (including nonbinary and two-spirit) people.
“Because we live in these boxes and are presumed to be either men or women, often the labor to share about your own identities and get services and protection that you need to feel safe and valued falls on folks within the trans and nonbinary communities,” says Mui, adding that the responsibility falls on those currently in leadership to deliberately act to make the workplace more inclusive and safe.
Employers must both change hiring practices so that the door is open and encouraging to people who are not cisgender men and improve policies and working conditions to better support people of all genders at work. Longstanding and oppressive societal norms are changing, and language will change alongside it.
Danielle Gaucher, Ph.D is associate professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba in Canada. She is the director of the Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Laboratory. Her research centers on issues of social justice and social change, specifically investigating the social-psychological processes that serve to maintain inequality at the individual and institutional levels.
Bex Mui is a biracial, queer, cis femme organizer and consultant committed to the work of LGBTQ+ affirmation. She has studied, worked, and advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the K-12 education system for the past 18 years.
Max Masure (they/them) is an Ethical UX Researcher, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant, Author, and Public Speaker. Max was named one of the most influential leaders of D&I in 2019 and 2020 by Hive Learning. They recently supported the United Nations in their efforts to improve engagement on their Sustainable Development Goals, trained Doctors Without Borders to better serve their employees and donors, and they are currently advising the Service Design Network Organization as a founding member of their Diversity, Education, and Inclusion Taskforce.