What is gendered language in the workplace?

  • 8 March 2023
  • Blog | Professionalism and Ethics | Blog

Discover the impact of gendered language in the workplace and how inclusive language can create a more welcoming and respectful environment for everyone. Our blog explores the meaning of gendered language, its effects on the workplace, and ways to promote inclusive language practices.


Defining gendered language in the workplace

Gendered language refers to the use of words and expressions that are associated with a particular gender, something which reinforces societal expectations of masculinity and femininity. This can include the use of masculine or feminine pronouns, gendered job titles, or gendered terms for certain activities or objects. Such language can have a profound impact within the workplace when it comes to job descriptions and internal communications.

Although the use of gendered language is not always intentional or malicious, it can be deeply ingrained in cultural and societal norms, making it difficult to address. Inclusive language, on the other hand, refers to language that is gender-neutral and does not reinforce gender stereotypes or binary categories. This can involve using gender-neutral pronouns like "they/them", avoiding gendered job titles, and using gender-inclusive terms for activities, characteristics or objects.

When it comes to job recruitment in particular, there is a heavily researched gap between the ways in which women and men apply to and browse for jobs. Research conducted by social platform LinkedIn found that, “while women’s journey to getting a new job starts off very similarly to men’s, it diverges when it comes to applying to the job or to being proactively recruited.” From the billions of job interactions assessed, the statistics showed that women are 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing the job description than men, and overall apply to 20% fewer jobs. Likewise, women need to feel they match 100% of the criteria for a job before submitting an application, compared to male candidates applying when they hit around 60%.

Gendered language plays a huge role in job descriptions and, ultimately, the success of companies hiring for new roles. Advertising a new role using masculine terms such as ‘leader’ and ‘direct’, while not always intentional, creates an unwelcoming perception of the role as being intended for a man; something which can discourage many from putting their name forwards.


How gendered language reinforces gender stereotypes and biases in the workplace

Language can reinforce gender stereotypes and biases across organisations in a number of ways. One of the primary ways is through the use of gendered language within job descriptions, through assigning specific words or desired characteristics to a particular gender. It's important to remember that gendered language within job description is often not intentional, although this does mean it can be more difficult to address. As pointed out by STEM Women: “Everyone uses language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’ without realising it and often, job adverts are the worst culprits when it comes to unconscious bias.”

For example, advertising a job role seeking someone who is “assertive”, “competitive”, or “dominant” can create biases, as these are are often perceived as masculine characteristics, while traits such as “nurturing” and “empathetic” are traditionally viewed as feminine. This type of language in job descriptions had the adverse effect of reinforcing traditional gender roles and can create a bias against those who may not fit those traditional gendered expectations, despite being qualified for the role.

This feeds into the agentic-communal spectrum, something reported on by the BBC. The term agentic refers to somebody who is proactive and assertive, whereas somebody described as communal tends to focus more on others’ well-being, and leans more towards being friendly and helpful. Within the workplace, men are frequently perceived to be more agentic in their operations, while being communal is considered a feminine trait. As explained in the BBC article: “Much of the language around leadership (and certain types of jobs) inclines towards agency – sending, intended or not, a gender-coded message about who the ideal candidate is.” Therefore, it is crucial for organisations to use gender-neutral language when advertising new roles, so as to avoid discouraging workers who lean more towards a communal approach.

Another common example of gendered language in the workplace is the use of gendered pronouns across internal communications. For example, referring to a group of employees as "guys" or using "he" as the default pronoun can reinforce the idea that men are the default or preferred gender in the workplace. This can create an atmosphere  in which women feel excluded or overlooked within the organisations. By being aware of these unconscious biases and instead promoting inclusive language across their communications, organisations can promote a culture of respect and acceptance, and create environments where all individuals feel valued and supported.


The importance of inclusive language

Promoting inclusive language is important for creating a more welcoming and equitable environment for individuals of all genders. It can help break down harmful gender stereotypes and promote respect for individual identity and autonomy. By understanding the impact of gendered language in the workplace and the benefits of using inclusive language, individuals and organisations can contribute to a more inclusive and just society.

Inclusive language seeks to eliminate gendered language and promote gender equality by using neutral terms that do not reinforce traditional gender roles. For example, using "they" or "their" instead of gendered pronouns or using terms like "confident" and "collaborative" instead of gendered personality traits can create a more inclusive and welcoming workplace that promotes diversity and inclusivity.

Inclusive language is an important tool for organisations to build a multi-talented and diverse workforce. Through assessing their initial communications with potential candidates, businesses can diversify their employees and ensure they’re hiring the best person for the job, regardless of gender. If organisations consistently use gendered language within their communications, however, this will impact not only the number of diverse candidates applying for roles, but will also create an unwelcome and difficult atmosphere for employees already in the organisation, leading to high employee turnover.

Ultimately, inclusive language is crucial within any organisation for promoting respect, inclusion, and diversity across the workforce. By being mindful of the impact of gendered language and taking steps to promote inclusive language, businesses can create a more welcoming and equitable workplace for individuals of all genders.


Strategies for promoting inclusive language

There are several strategies that can be used to promote gender inclusiveness in the workplace:

  • Use inclusive language: Avoid gendered language and pronouns, and instead use gender-neutral terms. For example, use "they" or "their" instead of "he" or "she," and use terms like "chairperson" instead of "chairman."
  • Encourage aspects of equality and diversity into all training: This is a useful way of implementing better practices across businesses as a whole.
  • Use diverse imagery: Use images and graphics in the workplace that represent people of all genders, including in marketing and advertising materials.
  • Use gender-neutral adjectives in job descriptions: Particularly when writing job descriptions, use adjectives that are not associated with a particular gender, such as "detail-oriented" or "collaborative," instead of adjectives like "competitive" or "assertive."
  • Be clear and concise: Use language that is clear and concise, and avoid unnecessary adjectives or descriptors that may reinforce gendered language.
  • Think about culture: Create a culture in which people feel safe to ask questions and discuss these topics.

By using gender-neutral language across all levels, organisations can attract a diverse pool of candidates and promote an inclusive workplace culture, therefore reducing the potential for bias and improve the overall effectiveness of job postings.


Conclusion: Being mindful of gendered language in the workplace

It is important for organisations to be aware of gendered language and to promote inclusive language because language plays a powerful role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes towards gender, as well as shaping perceptions of the organisation as a whole. By using inclusive language, organisations can create a more welcoming and inclusive workplace culture which acknowledges and respects all genders and helps to eliminate bias and discrimination across the workforce.

Additionally, promoting inclusive language can have a positive impact on employee morale and productivity. When employees feel valued and respected for who they are and what they bring to the table, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to do their best work.

Overall, promoting inclusive language is an important step towards creating a more equitable and welcoming workplace culture. It helps to foster diversity and inclusion, attract and retain a diverse workforce, and improve employee morale and productivity.