Why some words are gender biased — and how to use language to build inclusion

We often hear the phrase ‘words aren’t biased’. And in many ways, that’s entirely correct — they’re not. A word like ‘ambition’, or ‘kind’, for example, viewed by itself is… just a word. 

But when we view them through a sociocultural lens, things get a bit trickier. The word ‘ambition’ is more likely to bring to mind a man. And if you run a Google image search on the phrase ‘kind person’, you’re more likely to see pictures of women. 

So what’s behind gendered language, and how does it influence your organisation’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts?

Decoding the hidden gender bias in our language

“When people say words like ‘ambition’ aren’t gender biased, they’re usually viewing the word in isolation, and not connecting it with the context of how it’s used socially and culturally,” explains Jenifer Clausell Tormos, founder and CEO of Develop Diverse. “This is part of the status quo we’ve grown up with. It comes from societal biases — through our parents, teachers, people and media we interact with. 

“These stereotypes and gender norms exist everywhere,” Jenifer adds. “Understanding how they act on our perception of someone is the first step. For example, what does it mean to be ‘driven’? Who do we picture in our mind? 

“Historically, men have been expected to behave according to agentic behaviour norms. They’re ambitious, goal-oriented and individualistic. Women are encouraged to be communal, and are more team- and community-oriented. And this makes words like ‘ambitious’ a bit more loaded.” 

Gender biased language is everywhere. So how does it impact your company — and what can you do to reduce it at an organisational level?

How biased language impacts your organisation

Words like ‘challenge’ and ‘ambition’ viewed alone are just words. But when we view them through this sociocultural lens, they become encoded with masculine bias. 

Words that uphold masculine stereotypes are also known as agentic language, while words that uphold feminine stereotypes are known as communal language. Both can contribute to negative outcomes in the workplace. 

That’s because gender biased language impacts everyone. Ethnically marginalised groups are more likely to hold meta-stereotypes that they believe a dominant group thinks about them, making them less likely to apply for jobs. In performance reviews, managers are more likely to value behaviours like ‘taking charge’ when assessing men. 

“Language spirals through everything,” Jenifer says. “When applying for a job, for example, women often don’t feel that a word like ‘ambitious’ applies to them, because it implies agentic behaviour.” 

But using biased language doesn’t just impact your organisation outwardly — it also shapes things at a cultural level, too. 

“You build culture with language,” Jenifer says. “It defines who you are, who you hire, who gets promoted, who builds your product, and who makes decisions. The language you choose reflects how people work at your company.”

Helping you eliminate bias, one word at a time

Ultimately, eliminating biased language at an organisational level can help create greater inclusion. Organisations can take steps towards this goal in a few key ways: 

  • Create a written employee resource to help signpost awareness of language usage, behaviour norms, and the language that reflects your values as a company. For example: Making it a habit to ask for preferred pronouns. 
  • Avoid using gender biased language across all HR and employee processes, such as referring to ‘parental leave’ instead of maternity leave. 
  • Create an employee resource group that helps advocate for, and support your DEIB causes at a grassroots level. Remember that teams should be appropriately resourced, and have an executive sponsor in order to further inclusion long-term. 

The right tooling can help you meet this challenge more efficiently. Develop Diverse is an inclusive communication platform that helps organisations globally transform the way they use language. Trusted by Maersk Tankers, Volvo Cars, and Dyson, Develop Diverse is based on a blend of scientific research, natural linguistic programming, and AI to help you build a more inclusive organisation through all your written communications. 

Book a demo with one of our wonderful team members to see how we can help.

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