Watch Your Mouth: Decoding the Language of Unconscious Bias at Work

How many times have you been in a mixed gender group and the leader says something like:

Ok, you guys. It’s time to get down to work.”

Oh, man, this is going to be a challenge.”

Oh brother, I can’t believe this just happened in that meeting.”

Man, guys, brother. Notice a theme? I do, and it drives me crazy.

Now, I know that in these cases, traditionally male pronouns were used to represent all members of a group, regardless of gender. The speaker had no intention of offending anyone.

However, “traditional” is tricky. One could argue that traditionally, women didn’t have a real voice in business anyway, or that traditionally, men were the breadwinners*. The problem is that “traditions” are safe-havens where unconscious bias thrives. And actions follow words. So if we want to change organizational behavior and actions, we need to change organizational language.

Here’s what often happens when I bring up this topic:

“What’s the harm in saying ‘you guys’ at a team meeting? Everyone knows it’s just an expression.”

Maybe you’re thinking that exact thing right now.

The harm is, in this case, this type of language starts to create (or feed) a belief that male teams are better. Or worse, that women don’t even belong in a team and that a team isn’t even a legitimate team unless it’s a team of men. These words then filter into our subconscious and become accepted norms.

Language like this forms the building blocks for second-generation gender bias, which are “practices that may appear neutral or nonsexist, in that they apply to everyone, but which discriminate against women because they reflect the values of the men who created or developed the setting, usually a workplace**.” These biases create behaviors, both of which are often unconscious, and are responsible for many of the challenge’s women face in the workplace. Be honest, how often do you assume the CEO of a company is a male? It’s not only men that are guilty of this; women are guilty too.

In the workplace, biased language moves beyond gender. I hear bias in language all the time about Millennials (Generation Y), those born between 1981–2001:

“I just hired the new kid.”

“Oh really? You hired a teenager?”

“No, I hired someone who just graduated from college.”

“Then you hired a college graduate or young person.”

I even saw generational bias in a recent article: “…many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks.” If this is the language, we use to describe young people, then our words subconsciously allow us to treat them like children, which partly explains why Gen Y feels like no one takes them seriously. Is this really how we want to treat the second biggest generation, who happens to have the most educated people in its cohort?

Here’s my question: Are leaders giving enough thought to the language they use on a day-to-day basis? I’m not talking about truly offensive language such as N****er or other ethnic slurs. I’m talking about subtle language that we all say without thinking, the type of language that comes from — and worse, reinforces — unconscious, biased behavior.

Trust me; I know how difficult it is to change language that we’ve been using for decades. Even Oxford is guilty of it. Check out the example sentences on the following definitions pulled from Oxford Dictionary***:

I think these examples speak for themselves!

Here’s my challenge: I want organizational leaders to slash biased language from their vocabularies starting now. Below is a list of words that I commonly hear leaders use, along with non-biased alternative terms. Let’s all make a commitment together to eliminate these basic biased words from our vocabulary today. It will take practice to make the habit stick, yet it will make a huge difference in organizational inclusiveness.

I admit that I still struggle with using unconscious biased language often, especially when I’m tired. Just yesterday I said in a mixed-gender workshop, “Now that you guys get the point, it’s time to move to the next section.” I then had to stop myself and back track by saying, “Now that you all understand the point…”. People laughed at me when I did it; some even said, “Don’t worry about it. We know what you mean.” Yet there was a young woman who thanked me afterwards for changing my language; “It made me feel more included,” she said.

I hope you accept my challenge and consciously work to eliminate biased language from your vocabulary. After you start with the nine words above, you’ll begin to notice how much this language is used on a daily basis. All it takes is practice and awareness to help lower the burden of bias on the women and young people around you. Remember: Language creates action and action becomes accepted behavior and informs organizational culture. Your language, and your actions, matter.

What bias language do you notice the most? I’d like to hear from you all to gather even more perspective on the problem.

Let’s share experiences. Leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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