I am probably going to alienate loads of people with this short blog today. Thing is I want to highlight 2 words that are used by men and women alike in workplaces to place a generic label on men and women, or anonymise an individual. Both stem from male derivatives and as such make an immediate subconscious statement marginalising the women in the room. Nobody uses these terms with any ill will intentions, they are engrained in our psyche so roll off the tongue with ease.
These two words = Guys and Mate
Lets start with “Guys”. I have been a “guys” offender in the past, the use of the term is so common and considered to have ubiquitous meaning. You are probably reading this post and wondering what the harm is if women also use the term guys to address a mixed gender group, right? Earlier in 2016 I attended a screening of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap (must write a blog about that one), a male panelist not only brought the room to tears with his stories of alienation and support for women in the workplace, he highlighted the subtleties of language and the depth of impact this can have.
Reality is “guys” stems from a generalised term to describe a group of men, in the same era guys emerged into common language it was paired with “gals” which as we know has virtually disappeared. With the origin of the word in mind we must consider continued use of the word “guys” as death-by-a-thousand-cuts, it’s one of the many, many male normative terms that have crept into our workplace language subtly reinforcing men in a dominant position.
We also need to remember that the word “guys” is still used to refer to just men as well e.g.: “We need to hire more guys into nursing”, or (one all of the men in my life use) “I am off for a beer / round of golf with the guys” specifically to describe men.
The Diversity Council of Australia has recently waded into the “guys” debate with an argument based on value and inclusiveness, this explanation is from CEO Lisa Annese speaking to news.com.au:
“We’re not telling people what to say, we’re encouraging people to think about the words they use at work so everyone feels respected, valued and included. We know from research that when more inclusive language is used at work, people are greater engaged and more proactive.”
There is no ill will in using the term “guys”, it’s not designed as a derogatory term towards women it is merely perpetuating a male dominance that balanced inclusive workplaces should discourage. Like the generic terms “man” and “men” occasionally used in research and media to mean all people – lets replace “guys” with really neutral terms like team, colleagues, folks, y’all (if you are into slang) or ladies and gentlemen, men and women.
Then there’s “Mate”. Men across New Zealand and Australia refer to their friends as “mate”, the term has also crept into business life as we become more informal and is now used in the workplace frequently. The origin of the term is thought to have come from wartime, where the term mate originally stems from Middle Low German māt(e ) ‘comrade’, of West Germanic origin; related to meat (the underlying concept being that of eating together).
The word mate is now both a greeting and generic form to generically label another person “gidday mate” just “mate” for instance as two men pass each other in a corridor. Considering the wartime origin and the usual application of “mate” employed as a male label it is simply not cool to refer to a woman as mate. We have names. If you have forgotten a name there are other tactics you can employ that won’t apply a male bias to your greeting.
Why is banishing these words important
Recently I wrote about “Encouraging women to play the digital game” – this focused on striking a better balance for women, attracting women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) roles while acknowledging we also have a challenge attracting women to study these subjects. I went on to supply some tips for companies to get them started making a change.
Since the article I have been approached by companies asking what else they should do to improve their attractiveness to women as an employer? I think it’s great companies are looking to change their own biases, culture and create a “diversity friendly” inclusive workplace! so I promise to pull all of this advice together into a toolkit very soon.
Actively encouraging removing these words – and many others that are completely obvious so don’t need a description – from our collective vocabulary is a step towards a mindset of conscious inclusion. Consciously considering and respecting individuals and groups as they are greeted, consciously considering creation of an inclusive workplace every time we don’t use “mate” or “guys”.
Do your worst. Tell me why I am wrong to want Guys and Mate banished from workplace language and culture. Equally let me know what other terms we should be replacing with more inclusive ones. Enjoy Vic
If you haven’t seen these great quotes on gender parity from Davos 2016 take a look.
Victoria MacLennan is a busy business owner, investor and director. She is passionate about diversity, women in both leadership and technology, organisational governance and focuses much of her time on strengthening the New Zealand economy through Digital and Technology. Victoria is the New Zealand IT Professional of the year for 2016 and nominated for Women of Influence in the Board and Governance category. You can read more about Victoria here.