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Is Unconscious Bias Sneaking Into Your Workplace?

Anne Loehr

Leadership Consultant

"Okay you guys; it's time to get down to work," Jordan says to her team. "Man, this is really going to be a challenge," Luke replies, exasperated. "Oh brother, here we go, another late night at the office," Sarah sighs loudly.

This conversation seems like a typical team exchange about a big project, right? Well, it is—and it drives me crazy. Why? Because of the language used: "you guys," "man," "oh brother." This is a mixed gender team, yet the pronouns and expressions are entirely male.

It's true that male pronouns are traditionally used to represent all members of a group regardless of gender. However, defaulting to what's "traditional" is very tricky. One could argue that traditionally, women didn't really have a voice in business anyway, or that traditionally, women were not leaders. The problem with "traditions" is they can be safe-havens for unconscious bias.

The Problem with Unconscious Bias

When language promotes bias, the impact is bigger than you might expect: it expresses an inherent belief that male teams are better. Or worse, that women don't even belong on a team at all. The language may appear neutral or non-sexist, in that it applies to everyone, but it discriminates against women because it reflects the values of the men who created or developed the workplace. Another poignant example is the expression, "Are you man enough for the job?" Even if sayings like this are meant to be harmless, they contribute to many of the challenges women face in the workplace. For example, consider this: How often do you assume the CEO of a company is male?

It's not only men and women that are guilty of this, the Oxford Dictionary is also an offender. Anthropologist and Ph.D. student Michael Oman-Reagan identified the following biased definitions (and more) in the Oxford Dictionary:

However, gender-biased language isn't all we're guilty of. I hear age-biased language about millennials all the time. For example, "I just hired a new kid." The hire is most likely a "recent graduate" or "young person" which are better terms to use than kid.

I even saw generational bias in a recent article: "...many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks." If this is the language we use to describe young people, then our words subconsciously allow us to treat them like children, which partly explains why Gen Y feels like no one takes them seriously. Is this really how we want to treat the second biggest generation, who happens to have the most educated people in its cohort?

When to Watch Your Words

That brings me to an important question: Are leaders giving enough thought to the language they use daily? I'm not talking about overtly offensive language or ethnic slurs. I'm talking about the subtle language we say on autopilot, the type of language that comes from—and worse, reinforces—unconscious, biased behavior.

My challenge for all of you is to eliminate these biased words from your vocabulary and try these alternatives instead:

  1. "You guys": Instead use "everyone," "all of you," "team"
  2. "The kid": Instead use "the young person," "young lady," "young man"
  3. "Oh man" or "Oh brother": Instead use "wow," "ugh," "yikes
  4. "Attendees and their wives are invited": Instead use, "Attendees and their guests..."
  5. "Congressman": Instead use "Member of Congress," "legislator," "representative"
  6. "Mankind": Instead use "humankind," "humans," "people"
  7. "Manpower": Instead use "personnel," "staff"
  8. "Salesman": Instead use "salesperson"

Seems simple enough, doesn't it? After you start with the eight words above, you'll begin to notice how much this language is used on a daily basis. All it takes is practice and awareness to help lower the burden of bias on the women and young people around you. Remember: language creates action and action becomes accepted behavior which informs organizational culture. Your language, and your actions, matter.

Photo: Shutterstock

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