Gender-Biased Language & Its Effect On Diversity & Inclusion

By August 8, 2021 March 31st, 2022 Diversity & Inclusion, Women, Work

A Guide to a More Inclusive Workplace

Gender bias is the tendency to prefer one gender over another.[1]Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced. The content of gender stereotypes, according to which women should display communal/warmth traits (e.g., being nice, caring, and generous), and men should display agentic/competence traits (e.g., being efficient, agentic, and assertive; are reproduced in the lexical choices of everyday communication. Consequently, language subtly reproduces the societal asymmetries of status and power in favor of men, which are attached to the corresponding social roles.[2]

Verbiage not only reflects notorious gendered beliefs but affects recipients’ perception and thus behavior. The habitual use of language consistent with gender stereotypes unequivocally communicates and harmfully reinforces an archaic belief prolonging the biases towards women even in unintentional and unbiased people who do not favor generalizations. Word choice is perpetuating women’s underrepresentation in the workplace through gendered wording used in job descriptions, interview questions, performance reviews, policies, and other company literature. The state of becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace is a process, one which requires intention, attention, and action. Here is a simple, yet effective guide to help employers’ journey of becoming a more diverse and inclusive workplace:

Job Descriptions

It starts at hello in this case the job description! Be clear about the job needs and self-aware of implicit biases. Words such as confident, decisive, strong, and outspoken have been found to attract male candidates and deter female candidates. Furthermore, research shows men will apply to jobs even if they only meet 60% of the requirements whereas women will only apply to jobs, they meet 100% of the requirements. Decide on the most important competencies for the job and be cognizant of your asks, if the job description has a lot of unnecessary requirements, you are unintentionally pushing women out.

Interview Questions

The hiring process is the golden opportunity for any business. If the head of the business or department is delegating this task, then selecting the right hiring manager is probably one of the most important decisions for the growth and sustainability of the business. For newer companies, the hiring stakes are even higher with little to no room for error. It is imperative the hiring manager, whose influence carries so much weight, performs their duties free of biases. Hence, frequent and effective implicit bias training is key. Holding fair interviews granting the female and male candidate equal opportunity is an important step forward towards diversity and inclusion. Conversational style interviews are highly effective. It takes preparation and skill in execution, but candidates often feel more comfortable and in fact can express themselves with a higher degree of success. Here are a few non-biased interview questions:

  1. What do you want to do differently in your next role?
  2. What interests you about this role?
  3. How did you prepare for this interview?
  4. Describe your responsibilities in your last or current role. 
  5. Among the people you’ve worked with, who do you admire and why?
  6. It’s your 1 yr. anniversary in this role, what impact have you made on the business?
  7. What motivates you at work?
  8. What skills are you currently working on improving?
  9. What skills do you have that will help you to succeed in this role?
  10. Tell me about a time you took unexpected initiative. 

Performance Reviews

These three seemingly simple strategies can serve in creating fair and effective performance reviews. Bypassing our often-stereotypical impressions will allow us to deliver on our intention to be empowering, value-driven and, just to everyone on our team.

Rubrics: Research shows that when you first agree to the criteria used in the assessment and then you make the evaluation, you are less likely to rely on stereotypes and your assessments are less biased.[3]Review your employees’ initial goals and establish a methodology to ensure the evaluations are unbiased and objective across the board.

Prompts (Watch your words!): The point here is to approach and practice a method to ensure every team member is evaluated in an impartial, unbiased, and equitable manner. Practice consistency by prompting yourself to ask measurable outcomes from each employee. Equally important is our feedback and our ability to deliver it fairly, clearly, and accompanied by even clearer next steps.

Focus on what matters: Read all your reviews frequently and hold yourself to a high standard of intentional unbiased and fair evaluations. Listen more and take the appropriate action based on that feedback received. Everyday interactions are effective, constructive, and fundamental in our ability to make the proper adjustments at key moments to maximize effectiveness.

Learning, unlearning, and understanding the power of words to advance gender diversity and inclusion should motivate most if not all employers to do the necessary work. We must approach communication methods with the attention it merits as we work to further improve gender equality in the workforce. Companies need to hire and promote more women into all levels but especially into senior management positions. As we know diverse teams perform better and present opportunities for companies to access new talent pools and increase innovation and efficiency. Employers must make the case and promote gender equity. It is not not just about fairness or avoiding lawsuits or building the brand. Research by McKinsey shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.[4]