Girlboss or businessperson? Should we highlight or downplay gender in our language?

Just hearing the term “girl boss” makes me cringe. But after reading new research findings on gendered language in the workplace, I’m now more open to embracing it.

Gender-neutral words such as “businessperson” may not be gender-neutral at all, and may even be reinforcing stereotypes. This is because if gender is not specified, often we fill in the blanks with a masculine default – so suggests new research published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

“If anyone suggested saying ‘female politician’ or ‘lady scientist’, I think many would say, ‘No, thank you’,” says co-author of this study, Assistant Professor Stav Atir, from the University of Wisconsin, US. “But wholesale gender neutrality in language is no panacea. Occupation words such as ‘businessperson’ or ‘surgeon’, though technically gender neutral, likely conjure up an image of a man. Likewise, ‘nurse’ (also technically gender neutral) conjures up an image of a woman.”

The alternative, using a gender-marking approach, can be useful to highlight women and nonbinary people’s successes in a normally male-dominated field. “In order to spotlight the breakers of glass ceilings and those following in their footsteps, we must mention their gender,” says Atir. “If we discuss the CEO of YouTube, for instance, or the 2020 Nobel laureate in physics, and don’t mention they are women (Susan Wojcicki and Andrea Ghez, respectively), we’d be missing an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of who belongs and who can be successful in these professions.”

This is similar to the effect of not “seeing race”, where ignoring someone’s race means we could be failing to recognise and celebrate additional obstacles overcome by underrepresented people.

The lack of “gender marking” could have negative effects on nonbinary people too.

“The gender-neutral businessperson is technically inclusive, but the same male-default thinking that makes women disappear in gender-neutral language likely makes nonbinary people disappear, too.” says Atir. “Even writing about gender in a nonbinary way is difficult using existing linguistic tools.”

Unfortunately, gender marking also has its own drawbacks, and potentially reinforce stereotypes between different genders.

“Gender marking, then, should not be used thoughtlessly,” says Atir. “Though it can draw attention to professionals whose gender is underrepresented, it can also have ironic consequences, prompting stereotypical thinking and bolstering the perception of women as exotic exceptions to the male rule.”

So what do we do?

“We might be tempted to throw up our hands and give up the endeavour of using language to express and promote our beliefs,” says Atir. “That would be a mistake.

“Language remains one tool in our toolbox for social change, and, unlike some of our other tools, it’s one that we can all use. The key to using this tool effectively is to tailor our language to the context, taking into account our situation-specific goals.”

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