In June 2018, Ernst & Young, an accounting firm with $36.4 million in global revenue and 270,000 employees, demonstrated how deeply sexist language is embedded in company culture.
At a day-and-a-half-long seminar on leadership and empowerment, 30 female executives received a barrage of information about how to “fit into” corporate culture. The basics of this presentation were contained in a 55-page document.
Noteworthy excerpts included:
“Don’t flaunt your body—sexuality scrambles the brain.”
A description of how women’s and men’s communication styles differ stated that women often “speak briefly” and “ramble and miss the point” in meetings. In contrast, a man will “speak at length ― because he really believes in his idea.” Men are more effective at interrupting than women, who “wait their turn and raise their hands.”
A masculine/feminine score sheet further reinforced sexist stereotypes. Some of these included the notions that women are loyal, sensitive to the needs of others, and yielding. Men are individualistic, independent, and competitive.
A senior consultant at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm, Evelyn Carter, said that while the Ernst & Young presentation took note of sexist stereotypes, it seemed to advise women how to live with them.
What’s a Company to Do?
Consulting with a diversity and inclusion company is a good start. I also recommend this article in Inc. “Women Should Not “Fix” Themselves to Fit Into Sexist Work Environments,” by Amy Nelson, founder and CEP of The Riveter. Read this article for some specific suggestions about changing company cultures.
In addition, pay special attention to both verbal and written language so that it’s gender neutral. Your clients who note sexist language may never give you a chance to prove the value of your products and services.
Subtly Sexist: “Men” Is Not an Inclusive Word
The argument that it is, while archaic, is still used, as in the idea that “mankind” includes both men and women. The truth is that it leaves out women entirely; it makes men the default gender. Erasing that word from one’s speech and writing is a good beginning.
In that vein, the word “guys” also must go. A guy is a man. I can’t count the number of times a waiter addressed my husband and I as guys. “Thank, guys.” “What would you like tonight, guys?”
Some other words, like “businessmen,” “chairman,” and “manpower” should also be endangered. The first two only need the replacement of “person” and “people.” The third can be swapped for “personnel.”
One phrase that should be eliminated is “Man up” and similar expressions, some of which are genitalia-based. It might take a little longer to say, “Take responsibility,” but it has much more impact.
When my boys were little and enjoyed having me read bedtime stories, I edited the language in their books. Fireman became firefighter. Police man became police officer. I even changed some elements of stories. If daddy was outside doing yard work and mommy was inside cooking, I added a sentence that daddy would take his turn cooking the next day. When my boys learned how to read, they realized how I’d changed the stories. We still laugh about this today.
I agree with those who say that using “he and/or she” is clunky and awkward. I fought this for years. Mixing singular and plural in the same sentence grated on my nerve. I gave up the fight.
The solution many are adopting is “they.”
“If an employee wishes to submit a complaint, she or he should forward it to the appropriate department.”
“If an employee wishes to submit a complaint, they should forward it to the appropriate department.”
Grammatically, it may look wrong, but it’s simple, and it does the job.
One of the bigger objections is “It’s just an expression.” None of the phrases I’ve used here are “just expressions.” They are, rather, “reflections.” They demonstrate the underlying sexism that underpins far too much of company culture and culture in general.
Attention to non-sexist language also isn’t a phase that women are going to get over. They are in it for the long haul. It makes good business sense to understand and adapt to the values that are reshaping company culture.
Besides, it’s the right thing to do. Eradicate sexist language and you’ll stop offending aware workers.
Pat Iyer edited her sons’ books to eliminate sexist language. No postmen or policemen in her house!