A capable young woman was recently elected to an all-male council. The Mayor was reported in the local paper saying “It’s pleasing to have a lady back in the council to make sure the men look after themselves”. Groan!
It’s 2017 and people really shouldn’t be saying things like that to female colleagues in the workplace. Despite an increase in workplace programs addressing gender equality, diversity and inclusion, patronising and sexist language still happens.
This can be subtle, with language that both men and women may think of as ‘normal’.
However, just because some words may be in common use doesn’t make them OK.
As the Chair of the Diversity Council Australia David Morrison AO says, ‘language can cut people out or cut people down’. What if you were unconsciously discriminating against women colleagues, all because of the words you used?
If you want to be consciously inclusive, here’s my guide of 10 things NOT to say to women in the workplace
1. Don’t call us Ladies
Often used ironically, this word can be awkward that is because traditionally the word ‘lady’ implies domestic servitude (‘cleaning lady’) or nobility (think Downtown Abby’s ‘Lady of the house’). Neither contexts apply to the workplace.
2. Hi Guys
Consistently referring to your peers or audience as ‘guys’ is a subtle way of saying ‘women don’t belong here’. As Diversity Council Chief Executive Lisa Annese says “There are [gender] neutral alternatives that we can pick. Instead of saying, ‘hey guys’ or ‘hello ladies’, why not say, ‘hi everyone’, ‘hi team’?”
Never call a group of adult women ‘girls’. Too often women working in administration or finance are referred to as ‘the girls at the front desk’ or people say, ‘I’ll get the girls in finance to do it’. It is demeaning and offensive. It’s a workplace, not primary school!
4. Avoid personal comments
It’s best to keep the workplace professional and avoid personal comments. Commenting about a co-worker’s physical appearance (such as weight, clothes or makeup) is considered unprofessional. Not sure? Here’s the test; if your boss was Gail Kelly (former CEO of Westpac) or Alan Joyce (CEO Qantas) would you make a comment on her/his clothes or weight? Hmmm…probably not.
5. The kid or husband questions
See 4 above. Unless a woman brings it up, children (or lack thereof) are her own business. So never ask “when are you going to have kids? Do you have kids? Are you going to have any more kids?” Same for husband/partner – it really is none of your business to ask, if she has one or “what does your husband do?”.
This is the boardroom, not the bedroom. Keep the endearments out of the workplace.
7. Where did you come from?
In Australia’s multicultural cultural society, a person of colour or diverse cultural background is just as likely to have come from the ‘burbs of Melbourne as overseas. Questions such as “So, where are you really from?” reinforce a sense of ‘otherness’ as in code for ’you’re not from here’. If it matters to her, she’ll bring it up.
Try to use gender-neutral terms. Such as ‘Chairperson’ or ‘Chair’. We don’t call a man a Chairwoman so why call a woman Chairman?
9. Versions of ‘Shut up’
Hopefully most people would never say this to a woman but unfortunately, in my work as a coach, women regularly tell me how they’ve been told to ‘Calm down’ or ‘stop being bossy’, or ‘you ask too many questions’. All comments designed to silence and put her down.
10. And then there’s ‘invisible misogyny’
There are many other ways language can subtly ‘cut out’ women. Be alert and avoid these terms or, if someone else uses them, call it out. These are recognisable because there’s no equivalent for men. Such as ‘she’s opinionated’ (he’s ‘knowledgeable’), ‘she’s feisty’ (he’s ‘passionate’) and terms such as ‘motherhood statement’ (shorthand for waffle).
Finally, still not sure what not to say to a woman in the workplace? Here’s the test; if you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman.
It’s really not that hard for all of us to be a bit more inclusive in our choice of words. Numerous studies show there’s a big incentive to get this right as inclusive language not only improves workplace culture, it also bolsters productivity.
The last word goes to David Morrison, speaking about the #WordsAtWork program who said this is “not about being ‘politically correct’ – it is about encouraging people to use language at work which is respectful, accurate, and relevant to everyone”.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant and coach in local government. She delivers training in gender equality and good governance to councils, organisations and not-for-profits. In 2014 she was recognised for her outstanding leadership in her community with an Order of Australia medal. https://ruthmcgowan.com/