Ever read a job ad that calls for a ‘tech rockstar’ or ‘bad-ass’? How about being referred to as ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ in the workplace? Cringe.

Terms like these can sometimes be used intentionally to establish hierarchy and reinforce status in a professional setting. But they’re perhaps more often a result of subconscious societal norms that we need to break down.

While gendered terms can seem harmless – and could be intended to be endearing rather than demeaning – they’re evidence that there’s still an obvious divide between how we view working men and women.

We need to call out triggering workplace language and reframe how we talk about women and tech workers.

The problem with gendered language

It’s running rife

We asked the Girls in Tech community what trigger terms they’ve come across in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the feedback was mixed (and utterly appalling).

From terms that are obviously demeaning/belittling, like:

  • Hun/honey
  • Sweetie/sweetheart
  • New baby
  • Blonde girlfriend
  • Cute
  • Kiddo
  • The intern

To terms that trivialise women in leadership:

  • Boss babe
  • Mother of dragons
  • [To a department lead] Your ideas are cute

To non-inclusive terminology:

  • Guys (I’ll get “the guys” onto that)
  • IT guys
  • Gents
  • Women’s quota of the company

To terms that negatively portray female traits and behaviours:

  • Full of attitude
  • Boisterous
  • Too soft to lead
  • Ambitious
  • Sensitive.

We heard from women who were gaslighted, told to ‘calm down’ or ‘relax’, and women who were presumed to be secretaries.

These are real examples that make us seriously question if it’s the year 2021 or not. While language like this is often overlooked or ignored, the reality is that it has serious impacts:

  • For women, who are made to feel small
  • And for organizations, that miss out on awesome female talent because of the language they’re using.

It influences recruitment outcomes

Women already apply for fewer jobs than men. They tend to feel the need to meet 100 percent of the position requirements, whereas men apply when they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements. But gendered language in job ads results in even fewer applications from females.

Ziprecruiter research shows that ads with gender-neutral words get an average of 42 percent more responses than those that include words associated with masculine qualities (‘ambitious’, ‘lead’) or feminine qualities (‘understand’, ‘nurture’).

Beyond sexist language, the tech industry also has to deal with roles being made to sound ‘sexy’. Terms like ‘rockstar’ and ‘ninja’ are used to lure in talent, attempting to make the role sound exciting and important. It implies that the organization is forward-thinking and ‘fun’, but is it true? 57% of people reported not liking these terms in a 2015 study, and we’ve only experienced further oversaturation by these terms in ads since then.

It’s a global issue

In this article, we look at gendered language and trigger terms in the English language, but there’s evidence to suggest that this extends to other languages too.

In fact, countries where gender is built into the language are “associated with lower female labor force participation and — perhaps more importantly — larger gender differences in labor force participation”. In addition, “grammatical gender also predicts support for traditional gender roles”.

No matter where you are in the world, there are social consequences to linguistic choices. The way we speak influences the way we think. Languages do evolve over time, but we need to be intentional about it and consider how we want future generations to speak, and therefore perceive women.

It reinforces gender differences

Words like ‘mumtrepreneur’, ‘girlboss’ and ‘SheEO’ may have initially entered our vernacular on the back of feminism, highlighting that women and mums can be successful professionally. But the fact that they’ve caught on and become widely used as an alternative to the actual terms used for men (entrepreneur, boss, CEO) has turned this language into a cutesy, feminine version of what it is. Rather than supporting that women are equal to men, it reinforces the difference between them.

There are many ways to substitute gender-charged words and titles to gender-neutral ones. For example, saying ‘chairperson’ instead of ‘chairwoman’. Or saying ‘hi everyone’ instead of ‘hi guys’. Not only does this even out the playing field for men and women, it respectfully includes non-binary people in the workplace.

How organizations can use better workplace language

Assess recruitment processes

  • Use software like Textio, which analyses text and can identify gendered language in your job ads (it even offers useful alternative suggestions!)
  • Remove terms like ‘rockstar’ from your job ads.

Closely monitor terminology

  • Call people out on using non-inclusive terms like ‘guys’
  • Discourage the use of derogatory language towards women, like ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’
  • Empower women by using the same terms you use for men – CEO, Chairperson, Head of Department
  • Avoid using words with negative associations about women, for example ‘bossy’, ‘emotional’, ‘feisty’, ‘ball-busting’, ‘boisterous’.

Follow through with action