There are a number of conversations exploring the gender equality challenges that exist in workplaces. That’s good. We need more conversation around this topic. It helps us contextualize it and increase awareness.

These conversations often stall at a single question: “What can we do about it?” My contribution to this series explores a simple thing we can all do to improve the gender equality situation, and it has to do with one of the foundations of conversation: language.

First a disclaimer. This article is going to use some language you never see in Learning Solutions Magazine, specifically two words: “bitch” and “jerk.”

Context is important. This magazine is read by adults, and the gender equality issue is a serious one that requires mature discussion. Using an alternate form of it like “B-word” dilutes the weight the word has in the context of the issue at hand.

If seeing that word used here offends you, you may not want to continue. But I hope you do continue regardless.

The Importance of language

Years ago I worked in a financial institution with a fairly large L&D team. One day, a member of the instructional design team came to my office. He was upset with his manager—a female—who reported to me.

The reason he was upset is immaterial, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that, in the scenario in question, the manager had crossed some lines and her behavior was inappropriate. The instructional designer’s complaints were not without merit.

So I listened without interrupting, both to learn about the situation and to let him get what he needed to off his chest. That is, until he said this:

“She’s such a bitch.”

I stopped him there, telling him it was an inappropriate comment. He obviously didn’t realize why I thought the comment was inappropriate, because he was visibly surprised by the next thing I said.

“She’s not a bitch. She behaved like a jerk.”

Language is a powerful thing. Every word has meaning, and that meaning can change and/or increase in weight based on the context of how the word is used.

First, the word “bitch” has very specific meanings when directed to a woman. It has a different connotation when directed at a male. The point is, using the word bitch immediately brings gender into a discussion that really doesn’t need it.

Compare that to the word “jerk.” Anybody can act like a jerk. It’s not a gender-specific term, and as such doesn’t immediately complicate a non-gender-related issue by dragging gender into it.

So I explained that to him, and the conversation continued.

Labeling people vs. labeling behaviors

“Fine, she’s a jerk,” he conceded. And again I countered, this time with, “No, she’s not a jerk; she acted like a jerk. There’s a difference.”   

Consider this in your own life, and let’s use a different scenario. You’re at work, and you make a mistake. When you discuss it with your manager, he or she says, “You are so stupid.”

This is an overall assessment of you, as a person. It’s not time-bound or tied to context; it’s a label describing who you are. It makes it much more personal. Change the word “stupid” to something gender-specific like “bitch” and you complicate it exponentially, as you label not just an individual, but also that individual’s gender.

Contrast that with the manager responding with, “What you did was stupid.” It’s by no means appropriate, but it changes the weighting of the message. The “stupid” label is no longer applied to the individual; it’s tied to the action. It is by its very nature a time-bound, contextual comment, and a label that goes away once the associated behavior ceases.

A phrase you often hear in parenting conversations is, “Label the behavior, not the child.” This concept transfers to adult interactions as well.

Language is more than just what we say and write

I’m not recommending that you begin using the word “jerk”—it’s not likely a word that you would use in professional or managerial situations. It can be heard as a bit rude, regardless of context. My point is that carefully choosing our words and how we use them can directly impact the quality of gender-relations. Language goes far beyond the way it shapes interactions; it shapes the way we think.

In the immortal words of the comedian George Carlin, “We do think in language ... and so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language.”

Of course this extends beyond just the two words explored in this article. Consider the words you use in conversation, or when you’re angry. These words shape the way we think. It’s probably a good idea to steer clear of nouns that label the person, and try to focus on adjectives that describe specific behaviors.

One thing that managers and leaders within work groups must do is to help employees and co-workers understand this and make it the norm, by personal example and, where necessary, through appropriate correction or even consequences.

Consciously making the choice to remove from what we say some of the language that tears away at gender equality is a good first step. Hopefully it can lead to a change in the way we all think—which is the only true solution to the gender equality challenge.