Talking: it’s something that we learn at a very young age and don’t really think about when we’re doing it. But sometimes the words we say can have a different effect from the one we want.
If you’ve ever considered how to persuade people, sell a product or give a presentation, you’ll know about the importance of considering your audience when preparing what you’re going to say. This helps you give the audience information that’s relevant to them and be more effective at convincing them your ideas will work.
But there are other ways in which language can have a negative effect, and that’s when we inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) use language that excludes people. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it, and the effects can be subtle and sometimes subconscious. But it’s worth avoiding certain language so as not to alienate people.
In this article I’m going to focus on the use of language in the tech industry and how it impacts on gender equality. The industry still has a woefully small number of women in it, and it’s important to make those women who do get involved feel that they’re welcome. I’m aware that language is also an issue with regard to diversity in its widest sense, and that language needs to be inclusive of people of all races, those with disabilities, and LGBT people too. But my area of expertise is gender, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this article. I’ll briefly touch on the ways gendered language can alienate LGBT people too.
It’s easy to fall into using language that makes people feel excluded without ever realising it’s happening: I’m a woman who’s active in promoting gender diversity in tech and I’ve been called up on it from time to time. So I’m not preaching to you here: if I fall down occasionally, surely we can all get it wrong sometimes, even if we don’t mean to. It doesn’t make us bad people.
Let’s start by considering the contexts in which it’s easy to slip into language that can alienate people:
There are two words which are very emotive and are used a lot in the tech industry, and they are guys and girls.
There are a wide range of opinions on whether these words are acceptable or not, and it’s not my place to tell anyone what to say.
But there are times when using these words can cause problems.
For example, a while back I received a post from a community forum with a job advert, stating that the hirer was looking for a ‘guy’ with a certain range of skills. I politely (and privately) mentioned to the poster that this could make women feel they weren’t wanted for this job (and could also be in breach of sex discrimination legislation), and the poster politely (and publicly) apologised for any misunderstanding and changed the wording. But there was a backlash: one or two men thought that the word ‘guy’ means men and women, and that I was wrong to challenge it. But in a recruitment context, I would agree (and so would the legislation) that this definitely isn’t the case.
But I do use the word ‘guys’ to describe mixed groups sometimes, but only in a group I’m familiar with and in informal contexts. So how on earth do you work out what’s best?
I would suggest that it’s ok to use ‘guys’ in two contexts:
So if you’re speaking at your local meetup group and want to greet your audience, saying ‘hi guys!’ includes everyone. But in a more formal context or when used in the singular (like a job advert), a more generic term (‘person’, anyone?) won’t make anyone feel excluded. Or even in a less formal setting, like a chat with a colleague about finding a speaker for your meetup event, saying ‘we want a guy who can talk about x’ will make you both think about men and be less likely to consider the women who may be able to talk about x.
Language is powerful and affects the way we think subconsciously: even if you don’t consciously exclude women in your thinking, using language like this can fool your subconscious into thinking it’s OK.
The word ‘girls’ can also be difficult, as it’s used so widely by women’s tech groups yet can feel patronising and demeaning. I would suggest that ‘girl’ is one of those words that’s been appropriated by the group it describes to describe themselves, but is still not an appropriate word for people not from that group (i.e. men) to use. The gay and some minority ethnic communities also have words that are used like this, some of which are completely unacceptable for out-groups to use (so unacceptable that I’m not quoting them here, but I’m sure you know what they are).
Plenty of women use ‘girl’ and ‘girls’ to describe other women (I don’t, which might be a generational thing). There are also plenty of groups (e.g. girlgeeks) comprised of adult women who use the word unironically. I’d describe myself as a girlgeek but never as a girl – go figure!
My best advice would be to use the words ‘woman’ and ‘women’ to describe adult women, especially in formal settings. Even when you’re using ‘guy’, it doesn’t equate to ‘girl’—’boy’ does. And that’s a word very few of us would use at a tech event.
So to sum up:
In its infinite variety, the English language includes plenty of ways to put people down or insult them, and a fair proportion of these words and phrases are gendered. You don’t often hear a straight man being referred to as a ‘bitch’ after all.
This one is simpler to resolve: there is no place for sexist or abusive language in the tech industry. So if a woman says something you don’t like, don’t call her a ‘bitch’. Don’t use words like ‘girl’ as an insult or an insinuation of someone’s sexuality.
Equally, if a woman in authority has a habit of telling people what to do, she might be described as ‘bossy’. Have you ever heard a male manager being called that? (OK, if you have occasionally, don’t leave it in the comments!). The reality is that men are expected to behave in certain ways with regard to power and influence, and women aren’t. When people come up against women like this they’re often threatened by it and will use negative language to describe the behaviour. If a man behaves in the same way, we just shrug and ignore it.
The same goes for insults aimed at men who don’t behave in stereotypically masculine ways. A man who isn’t assertive might be described as ‘weak’, ‘a girl’, ‘a wuss’ or worse. There are three problems with talking about men like this: it ignores the fact that all men are different and don’t conform to stereotypes; it implies that being female is inferior if ‘girl’ can be used as an insult; and finally it can imply that non-stereotypical men are gay, and that that’s a bad thing. There are plenty of men, gay and straight, who behave in ways that may or may not be stereotypically masculine. And there are plenty of gay men in the tech industry who can feel alienated by this kind of language.
Tech events often have codes of conduct that specifically proscribe sexist or abusive language of all kinds: here’s the WordCamp Central code of conduct on language:
“Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory or harassing behavior and speech…Harassment includes: offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability…”
So avoid it. It’s not nice and makes you look nasty.
There are plenty of other words I’m not going to list that are gender-specific and equally or more unpleasant, but using them promotes a culture of sexism and disrespect. As Sponge Bob said, ‘Don’t be a jerk’ (even when it’s not Christmas):
Some firms like to use words that they think of as dynamic and powerful when recruiting staff. They think this will help them find capable people who get a lot done, can lead and are self-starters.
But sometimes language can alienate people.
Buffer is a tech firm that’s working hard to become more diverse and transparent. Many of its job titles include the word ‘hacker’, a word they liked:
“I think the original reason why we liked that word was because hackers are just people who get things to work well and fast. A ‘hacker’ doesn’t necessarily need a computer science degree or a lot of experience or need to be excellent in mind games, puzzles etc.”
But the firm found that the word was putting women off applying for jobs: only 2% of applicants were women. So they changed their job titles:
“We wanted to be as inviting in our job listings as possible. This also seemed most in line with the way we hire, prioritizing culture fit over technical skill.”
So the word ‘hacker’ was replaced by the word ‘developer’ in their job titles. While their development team remains their least diverse team according to their diversity dashboard, it does now include 10% women, which is real progress from 2% of applicants.
The research shows that using less masculine language doesn’t put men off applying for jobs: they apply in the same numbers. But it does result in more applications from women. Which widens the recruitment pool and helps to make the industry more diverse.
A final point that’s worth considering is about ‘colorful’ language. We all have different perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable, and generally tone down our language when we’re at work compared to our home lives (unless you’re like me and you’ve got kids, in which case you might do the opposite!).
But one thing a lot of people assume is that men and women have different perceptions of what does and doesn’t constitute swearing.
I’ve been in groups where I’m the only woman and a man has used a swear word and then apologised to me. Not to any of the men surrounding us, but just to me: it seems that these men think they can use profanities around other men but not around me. Why?
Like many of the women I work with, I can cuss with the best of them (especially when my code doesn’t work or Microsoft Word loses all my work). So don’t assume that the women around you will be offended by swearing, and don’t embarrass them by apologising.
As Ciara Byrne and Jay Cassano wrote in ‘The Loneliness of the Female Coder‘:
“When one of your coworkers makes a joke that is crude, even though it doesn’t offend you at all and you haven’t even had time to laugh, he turns to you and apologizes, because you are the only woman at the table and your delicate sensibilities must have been affronted. You feel lonely again. You feel like you’re not supposed to be at the table.”
This alienates women too, by making them feel different. Either use the word and let it pass, or don’t use it at all. If you don’t want to use a word around women (or people of color, or LGBT people, or disabled people) because you think it would offend them, just don’t use it ever. Period.
Using gender neutral language can be difficult at first if you subconsciously use words which may exclude women. But changing the way you use language won’t exclude men and will include women, making the tech industry feel like a more welcoming place for everyone. What can you change about the way you use language today?