Gender neutral or gender inclusive? Is it okay to refer to women* as guys?
If work had carried on as before, with predominantly one-on-one work activities. I doubt that I would have become, as aware, of the potential impact of the term ‘guys’.
However, over the last few years I have been heavily involved in organisations and activities that need to refer, far more frequently, to a group of people – and that lends itself to the use of the term ‘guys’.
The question I have been asking. Is whether or not, given it has been sufficiently repetitive that I became aware and sensitive, to it’s repeated use. Is the term ‘guys’ inclusive?
Terms used include…
‘Brilliant work guys’
‘Let’s go guys’
‘What do you think guys’
How often does it happen?
I have experienced the term ‘guys’ used several times in an hour. There can even be a lack of female reference for days, unless I say something.
The term ‘guys’ could, at face value, be an acceptable generic term for a group of people. Used by both women and men.
When looking at the wider context. Where businesses, organisations, or leaders, want to create an environment that is inclusive. And promote equality. Is ‘guys’ okay? Should we be encouraging greater use of gender neutral language?
Whilst I often ask for an increase in gender neutral, or inclusive language, to be used. Others may not speak up. I have also received mixed responses.
Whether I am being presented, or spoken to as part of a group. Or I am running the session, meeting, event. My request for gender neutral language is often met favourably. People typically comment that they have done so out of habit. Since they are now aware, they are happy to make the change.
Other times, the request isn’t met receptively. Here are some thoughts arising from those conversations.
‘Guys is a generic term’
Whilst it may be an acceptable generic term. Is that through an active choice, after being made aware? Or are people simply putting up with it?
Terms, and sayings, which were previously accepted are now being challenged. Sexism (overt and subtle) continues to be an issue for women in the workplace, and at home.
It may also be worth considering, that the word ‘guys’, isn’t a term that has come from a place of equality. It’s use has come about because society was, and remains, male dominated. Our language reflects this imbalance.
If it does not matter. How comfortable do we feel if we were to refer to mixed groups, as ‘gals’ all the time?
At a recent training event I attended, a female delegate said ‘thank you’. When, for the first time in her group, a female reference was used by another delegate. Perhaps indicative that we therefore do need to be taking these matters into account.
The aim here is not to say never use the term ‘guys’. It is about creating an awareness of why the term, might not be considered inclusive. How by choosing that language, it could create the opposite to the inclusive environment you intend. Frequency or context may also have an impact.
It is also noteworthy that where the term ‘guys’ is predominantly used. Other male language references are also often used by default and habit. Such as ‘he’, ‘chairman’, ‘his role’, etc. Sometimes, there is a pause, as they may then remember to add ‘or she’. It doesn’t yet flow. I, and others, have been called a ‘he’ before, because it has become habitual for someone to refer to a particular role in the masculine.
Making a change, often means, look at the wider impact, of language and behaviour. and culture.
‘Stop being so sensitive’
Words have power. By using male terms it can create and sustain both a conscious and unconscious bias. If we want to create a more gender (or non-binary) inclusive environment, the choice of language is key.
Mindset and language are interlinked. By becoming more aware of one, we become more aware of the other. This then allows us to make active choices on how we choose to lead, recognise what our blind spots may be, and what language we use without realising.
I notice I can sometimes use, unhelpful gender related language by habit, and then change it. Past examples have included ‘drama queen’ and ‘man up’.
Once aware, people have two choices:
- choose to change their language (this can even be where they do not agree with the reasoning or view)
- choose not to change their language
If they choose not to change their language, then it is for those around them, to make their own choice.
I have had my request to use more female inclusive/neutral language, refused. Whilst I might feel frustrated, the choice is now mine. Having tried to change it, and been unsuccessful, it is up to me to accept it, put up with it, or leave.
People in your organisation may be faced with the same choice. Put up with it, or leave. Others may never join your business, because of language used. In adverts, websites, conversations, and interviews. The result? A pool of talent, diverse individuals, and a variety of skills, lost.
Exploring how you can make your business or organisation more inclusive, through language, can open up possibilities for growth. The same is true for other areas of equality.
What could you say instead?
Often, there is no need for any gender.
‘Good morning’. ‘Come on, let’s go.’ ‘What do you all think?’ ‘Well done everyone.’
Notice the language you, and others use. Consider how it ties in with your personal and business values.
Speak to others around you (preferably those that don’t typically agree with you). Read around the subject. Consider the differing views on what you can do. To generate greater inclusivity.
Talk to those that might be impacted. What do they need to flourish?
The more information gathered, the greater the effectiveness of decisions made. Awareness, understanding, and emersion, often leads to change.
You may also find this HBR article on diversity training useful. Or get in touch to find out more about the various training I run.
What will your next step be?
*Please be aware that many people do not identify as either male or female. The focus of this article is relating to my personal experiences, hence the language used, is referring to my gender as a female. However, it would of course be extended to encompass others.
[Subsequently edited to make minor corrections, add article reference, and restructure, from the original 2017 version]