You might not realize it, but the words you say every day could be alienating your employees.

Business owners have a new and important complexity to consider: gender. Gendered language reinforces sexist stereotypes, and can alienate people who don’t fit into the gender you’re referring to.

This is what a gendered phrase looks like in the wild.

  • “Hey, guys.” → “Guys” excludes anyone who doesn’t identify with being male.
  • “She’s so assertive.” → “Assertive” can be a euphemism for aggressive, which has sexist undertones when referring to women.
  • “What a lady boss.” → “Guy boss” isn’t a thing, so why should lady boss be?

Here are three steps that will help you strip sexist language from your business—while becoming more thoughtful about the words you and your team choose. 

Step 1: Memorize this list of gendered words.

During stressful times, we tell people to “man up.” We hire a “right-hand man” to help us accomplish goals, and we ask our “wingman” to accompany us on sales calls.

Language isn’t just masculine. We also call women “perky,” “sassy,” and “bossy.” We tell people they’re being too sensitive and that they should “calm down.” When someone looks intense, we say they have a “resting b*tch face.” 

Those words aren’t harmless. A Harvard study found that women who read job descriptions with more masculine wording were less likely to feel that they were right for those particular roles.

Something’s wrong with that. The good news is that casual sexism can be undone by simply choosing more accurate words.

Instead of thisSay this
BossyFearless, Committed
BusinessmanBusiness professional, Executive, Leader
ChairmanChair, Chairperson, Coordinator, Head, Leader
Drama queenAttention seeker, Crowdpleaser
Hey [Guys, Ladies, Gentleman, Ma’am, Sir, Girls]Everybody, Friends, Folks, Everyone
Man the booth/eventStaff, Attend, Take care of
Man/WomanEmployee, Colleague, Coworker, Individual, Person
ManmadeArtificial, Fake, Machine-made, Synthetic
MankindHuman beings, Humanity, People
ManpowerWorkforce, Labor, Employees
Ninja/RockstarExpert, Pro, More descriptive title
Office momOffice parent
SeminalCrucial, Fundamental, Important, Pioneering
Sir (In “Dear Sir,” Etc.)To whom it may concern
The common manThe average person, Everyday employee
Working mother/fatherWorking parent

Remember, it will be hard to totally erase some of these words from your vocab. But you can set a good example of what’s appropriate by using more precise language—and recognizing when you make a mistake. 

A language analysis tool called Textio will also help you unearth unintended sexism in your communications. 

Step 2: Learn how to ask employees and candidates about their gender pronouns.

What you call people matters. Your team’s gender identity isn’t always clear, and it’s important to check your assumptions for several reasons.

  • Referring to someone with the wrong pronoun can leave them feeling alienated and demoralized.
  • Using inappropriate gender pronouns can make it seem like you don’t value and respect your employees.

It’s helpful to know that gender pronouns aren’t limited to he/him/his or she/her/hers. Some people use they/them/theirs, while others might use ze/zir/zirs.

Are you confused? Do you have questions? That’s natural. Language is fluid, and none of this is written in stone. You can prevent confusion and anguish down the road while also showing respect. Just ask this simple question.

“What pronouns do you use?”

Ask all new hires and employees, and collect their responses.

Do you feel uncomfortable asking about pronouns? That’s not uncommon, which is why it might be helpful to share yours upfront when talking to all candidates and employees. You can say:

“Hello, my name is Laurie. It’s nice to meet you. The pronouns I use are she/her/hers. How about you?”

Remember, it’s not rude to ask for clarification if you’re unsure of someone’s preferred pronouns or make a mistake. You can say:

“I’m sorry for making that assumption. Can you help me by explaining which pronouns you identify with?”

Step 3: Update your hiring and onboarding processes.

Some HR platforms allow employees to select their pronouns during onboarding so you don’t even have to ask.

But if your tech stack doesn’t have a field that invites people to choose how they’d like to be addressed, you can always ask for preferred pronouns via email when you start talking to a candidate. Just say:

“What pronouns do you use/prefer?”

You can also make pronoun intros a part of your new hire onboarding process by doing the following:

First-day introductions

On the first day of work, ask your employees to introduce themselves and share their names and preferred pronouns. This activity gives everyone a chance to meet one another with a fresh pair of eyes, and it lets existing employees hear how their co-workers prefer to be called.

It also gets people used to the pronoun question, which can look strange if people have never asked or answered it before.

Messaging app bios

Another idea is to encourage people to add their preferred pronouns in their Slack bio, or whatever internal communications tool you use.

As a small business owner, you have a choice: You can either lead the charge or watch as employees and candidates bounce for companies that are more thoughtful about the words they use.

So stop saying gendered things like, “Hey, guys.” Your team, your customers, your bottom line, (and your English teacher) will thank you.

Laurie Ruettimann Laurie Ruettimann is a former HR leader turned writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. She's been featured on NPR, The New Yorker, Vox, and CNN. She is the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR, which Forbes named as one of its top 100 websites for women.
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