Gender bias in language. Are you guilty?

Jan 28, 2022

You’ve been making waves when it comes to your Diversity & Inclusion agenda. Neurodiversity, LGBTQ+, race, religion, age and gender….the list goes on. Conversations, commandments, content – these are all welcome developments, as we endeavour to create fairer workplaces, and society as a whole. 

But, is your language (perhaps inadvertently) letting you down – especially when it comes to the way you talk about women? As a women’s writer collective, lovers of lexicon and in the lead up to International Women’s Day 2022 (#BreakTheBias), we thought it the perfect time to explore this further.

Have we moved on since the 1960s?

Until the early 1960s, job listings were often published in newspapers as separate lists for men and women. Things have thankfully changed for the better since then, with gender-neutral titles becoming more prevalent. And yet, has ‘unequal’ gender language really been banished from the workplace altogether? And to what extent is gender bias in language still having an impact on things like recruitment and performance appraisals? Well, you’re about to find out….

Unconscious bias and the language trap

We’re all biased, even if it pains us to admit it.

Unconscious bias is our internal set of stereotypes and profiles. It informs – at a very deep, subconscious level – our expectation of a particular person in a specific situation.

We might have unconscious biases about how well someone with a degree from a red brick university will perform in a particular job or project. Or we might subconsciously believe that someone with a specific accent will be more or less reliable.

Even a 6-year-old…

In studies, unconscious bias is present in those who stand up for equality at a conscious level. It’s even been shown to impact children’s thinking, starting from 5-7 years old: when asked to draw a picture of a doctor, firefighter and fighter pilot, just 5 out of 61 drawings depicted women in those roles!

Firefight against this, we must!

Gender-neutral pronouns, but bias in language still prevails

In the UK, overtly gendered terms are banned from the recruitment process. This includes using the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ to describe post-holders, as well as gendered terminology such as ‘fireman’ or ‘air hostess’. While these terms may still be present socially – and are a big indicator of the unconscious biases that still remain – legislation has removed them from recruitment.

But, language inherently has gendered associations, so you may still be writing job descriptions that speak to one gender more than the other without even knowing it. 

Are you weeding out women unintentionally?

Words such as ‘competitive, confident, decisive, strong, outspoken, dominant or leader’ have been shown to deter women from applying. On the other hand, words such as ‘support, understand and interpersonal’ encourage women to apply. Including gendered words in job advertisements could make the position seem less appealing to a certain gender, thereby limiting the applicant pool for those jobs.

Research also shows that men apply to jobs where they meet 60% of the qualifications while women only apply to jobs where they have 100% of the qualifications. If your job description has a lot of unnecessary or strict requirements, you are unintentionally weeding out women.

Consider whether your job descriptions speak more to one gender than another and whether the competencies you’ve outlined are truly essential to the role or not.

It’s not just about job adverts

Even if you’ve removed all the gender bias from your recruitment language, unconscious stereotyping can still be present in the language of your appraisals and reviews. 

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Meta Platforms and founder of LeanIn.org, famously talked about her experiences of the gendered use of language. She recalls being labelled ‘bossy’ as a young girl, where a boy would have been praised for being ‘assertive’ and having ‘leadership skills’. Her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, explores the subtle and not-so-subtle gender discriminations she had to conquer on her journey to becoming COO of Facebook.

Subjective wording, despite objective success criteria

Using language to describe the same action less favourably for one gender can get in the way during formal appraisal processes, without it ever being a conscious decision. The US army led a review of their leadership performance appraisal data. They found that managers used more negative terms to describe women and more positive ones to describe men. All this despite the men and women’s performances being the same by objective measurements. 

Mending the broken rungs of women’s career ladders…

Allowing unconscious bias to creep into your performance assessments can have enormous negative impacts. It reduces the likelihood of talented women progressing through the ranks alongside their equally talented male counterparts. And reinforces the ‘broken’ rung of the career ladder – past which women find it hard to climb. 

Given the same objective performance data, would you promote an “arrogant but analytical” man or an “inept but compassionate” woman? (These are the real top results from both the positive and negative adjectives within the US Army research for each gender. Remember that, objectively, the individuals are equally capable!)

Why should I care about gender bias in my company’s language?

As someone with decision-making power in a business, here’s why you should care

  • It’s the right thing to do. Nobody’s life should be limited as a result of someone else’s conscious or subconscious views.
  • If you mention Diversity & Inclusion in your values, you truly need to walk the walk – for your team, your clients and your investors.
  • There’s a wealth of research showing that companies with greater gender parity generate more money, make better decisions, take more calculated risks and are more innovative. A win for morals and a win for business.
  • Gender inequality is not just a ‘women’s issue’; it’s society’s issue. Gender inequality correlates closely with a loss in human development. Put simply, without enabling everyone within society to thrive, the society itself will never reach its full potential. Now it’s a win for morals, business and society at large!

How to screen your language for gender bias

Start with you

Be mindful of your language – be more aware of what you think and how it impacts what language you use. Use the ‘test yourself’ resource from Project Implicit at Harvard to open your eyes.

Connect with diverse groups of people

Be inclusive and surround yourself with people who think and look different to you, and who have experiences outside of your own.

Understand how language can feel for different people

Don’t assume how language lands with different people. Ask! Remember that even the most committed champions of equality come with their own set of biases and will see everything through their own lens. What seems like unbiased language to you may feel very different to someone else.

Empower yourself

Use systems to ensure success – don’t ask your team to rely on their own self-awareness to filter out the language of unconscious bias. Instead, create guides and standardised methodologies to reduce the impact of individual biases.

Clear out a climate of contradiction

Don’t let (unintentional) language gender bias hold you back, and create a climate of contradiction. Ensure you’re not ditching the pronouns, but promoting gender loaded terms in job specs and appraisals. Don’t do D&I in bucket-loads, but still differentiate between a confident man and a compassionate woman. But do #BreakTheBias once and for all. Remember: businesses with greater gender parity make better decisions, are more innovative – and make more mula. Enough said.

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