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How to Avoid Gender Stereotyping in Corporate Communications

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The familiar saying that ‘names can never hurt me’ is far from accurate. Words really do matter and being aware of what you are saying, and how it will be received is crucial to effective communication. When we learn to speak, write and share our thoughts we can often be unaware of the judgements and biases that are being built into our language.

Why does this matter? For communicators, understanding what you are saying and how it is going to be interpreted can make the difference between success and failure. But for us all, what we say to people can have a serious impact on how they feel. No one wants to be responsible for deliberately causing upset and hurt to others. It may be classed as ‘banter’, but using derogatory language or labelling people damages the company culture.

Using inclusive and positive language can bring people together and create a united workforce acting as a team. It can demonstrate an organization that is welcoming to people no matter what their background. It can increase employee satisfaction and ultimately increase productivity. This might sound like a wild claim, but the more engaged people are with their work the more they are able to contribute.

Allowing unacceptable language or behaviour to exist within the workplace erodes trust and confidence in the management, disconnects people from the company, and might lead them to leave. There is a possibility that the company culture will be exposed to others through the media or even the actions of a whistle-blower. When the head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee made negative comments about women, they were quickly made public and ultimately led him to have to resign.

So how do we avoid gender stereotyping in our communication? The first thing is to stop talking and to start listening. Listen to the views of diverse communities, customers and employees. Understand what they are telling you about how your communication makes them feel and look at how you can improve. They will tell you what certain words evoke and mean, and terminology to avoid. Once you have started to listen, make sure you do not go back to old habits. The pressure of time and demands on communicators can push people to produce words without assessing the impact they may have.

Be open and talk to employees about how words matter and what they can do to build a workplace that is welcoming. Every single member of staff should understand what is acceptable and see how they can contribute to making a change. Communicators and leaders should understand how assumptions and biases impact their work and what they say. Without becoming too inward-focused, a period of self-reflection can be enlightening. We all have biases evident in what we say, what we do and our decision-making. Look at how you approach communication and see where preconceptions are making an impact.

Look at what other organizations are doing to become more inclusive in their communication. Identify approaches that are making a difference and see where things go wrong and what can be learnt from challenging situations. The more attuned you become to inappropriate and unacceptable language, the easier it is to banish it from your work. This should not be about having an agreed book of terms that people feel forced to use. It is an opportunity to educate people about the impact that words can have and the hurt they can cause.

Companies need to start by looking at the corporate documents. Perhaps it is time to stop asking people to classify as Mr, Mrs or Miss. Why is it necessary? Starting to dissect these formal processes can identify problematic language and gender stereotyping. Consider what your recruitment advertising says about the business, and how the recruitment processes reinforce stereotyping. Assess the systems and policies that underpin the business operation and start to make changes that remove biases.

Finally, ask people how they feel about the words you use and the communication you produce. Evaluation for corporate communication is about more than just getting your message across. It has to be about really connecting and engaging either with customers or the workforce. This can only be done by asking people how they feel, what the words mean and how they could be improved.

On International Women’s Day take a moment to reflect on those words and phrases that are used every day but can exclude people and make them feel uncomfortable. It all has to start with a willingness to change.