Use of gender-biased language prolific in workplaces, study suggests

Experts say steps should be taken to foster inclusive phrases and avoid outdated terms as research reveals use in meetings as well as casual conversation

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Almost half of UK employees use gender-biased phrases in the workplace and frequently stereotype, a report has found.

The poll of 2,000 UK employees by Samsung found that 46 per cent had used gender-biased terms, such as referring to a group of colleagues as ‘guys’, at work.

The analysis also found that the average worker used gender-biased language more than four times in the working week (80 per cent), despite nine in 10 (92 per cent) claiming they made a conscious effort to use inclusive terms, such as ‘team’.

As well as being used in casual conversation within the workplace, such language was also used in professional settings such as meetings, where it was encountered by two in five (40 per cent), and interviews (30 per cent).

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Claire McCartney, senior inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said employees must do more to avoid the use of gender-biased language and stereotypes, and that such instances were “far too common and impacting women reaching their full potential at work”.

McCartney also said employers should assess their hiring methods to develop and retain people to make sure they are inclusive and free of bias. Additionally, they should engage with employees to create “work environments where everyone is treated fairly and with respect”, she said.

Respondents gave examples such as being referred to as “sweetheart” and “darling”, while others recalled being referred to as a “typical blonde woman”.

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The analysis found that language like this made almost a third of workers (31 per cent) feel uncomfortable, and 28 per cent said they had put off contributing to some meetings altogether.

It also revealed that it was not just women who were offended by gender-biased language, with 28 per cent of male respondents stating it prevented them from attaining their full potential.

Jackye Clayton, vice president of talent acquisition and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Textio, agreed that employers must take proactive steps to foster inclusive language, attract talent and create a workplace that promotes inclusivity.

Clayton added that with almost half of UK employees using gender-biased language at work, companies must do more to understand how and where unconscious bias is showing up and take action to remove it. “It’s only by doing this that companies can become truly inclusive to everyone,” she said.

The analysis also highlighted that gender-biased language and use of stereotypes were widespread within UK workplaces, with women asked to make tea or coffee almost three times (42 per cent) more than men (16 per cent).

Furthermore, women were more than twice as likely as men (50 per cent compared with 21 per cent) to be asked about the wellbeing of their children, and twice as likely to be asked to do menial or admin-based tasks, compared to men (37 and 19 per cent respectively).

The report also said that women were made the target of sexist jokes almost three times more than men (43 per cent, compared to 15 per cent).

However, the research suggested that UK employees were starting to challenge this vocabulary, with two-thirds (64 per cent) reporting calling out gender-biased language. Of those, 28 per cent called it out to the person directly, 22 per cent reported it to their boss and 14 per cent reported it to HR.

Yet, one in five (19 per cent) respondents admitted wanting to correct someone at work for using gender-biased language but choosing not to because they didn't have the confidence to do so.

Just one in five UK employees were aware of what their company was doing to challenge gender-biased language, but 28 per cent said it was up to workplaces to introduce positive change towards gender-specific phrases by reviewing language in job descriptions to be more inclusive.