These 4 language choices can help squash gender bias

While it's not easy to lose the inclination to use gendered language, here are some red flags to avoid.

"Brave, Not Perfect" event panelists.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

Reminder: Words have power.

Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of tech equity nonprofit TechGirlz, remembers with dismay the experience of one teen girl — a participant in one of the nonprofit’s coding classes — while attending a robotics club that was comprised of all young boys.

“One of the boys said to her while she was on the whiteboard: ‘Why are we listening to a girl?’ and took the marker out of her hand,” the founder recounted. “Mind you, this was in 2018, not 1960. … The other girl in the class? They made her the secretary of the club. What I ask is where was the adult in the room saying that behavior is unacceptable?”

The anecdote was shared by Welson-Rossman as part of a Wednesday morning panel discussion at “Brave, Not Perfect: Rewiring Expectations Beyond Gender Norms,” an event organized by Generocity, and Karin Copeland Presents.

The panel, which included Ellevest founder Sallie Krawcheck, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, Translator founder Natalie Egan and Think Company’s content strategy principal, David Dylan Thomas, broke down some discourse choices that are helping gender bias survive, and four ways to rewire language.

Smashing the internal saboteur

“Women won’t apply to jobs unless they meet 100 percent of the qualifications,” said Saujani, whose book “Brave, Not Perfect” proposes a shift in the way young women are raised. She warned about the gender bias that exists in perceived ability between boys and girls — and men and women.

“We’re always looking for ways we don’t belong and don’t qualify,” Saujani said. “We find ourselves taking us out of the game because we think we’re not prepared. … We don’t need to teach [girls] another week of algorithms, we need to teach them to believe in themselves and silence the voice in their head that says they can’t do something.”


The “No Guys” zone

Translator founder Natalie Egan, who is a trans woman, found a way to gamify the exclusion of gendered language: When starting a conversation or discussion, Egan declares the space a “No Guys” zone in a bid to cut the use of gendered language as the default appellative for a group of people.

The first person to say it will hear a buzzer sound from her.

“I personally find it triggering and traumatic,” she said, of hearing “guy” as the default. “We’re not all guys in the room.”

The reasoning behind the game is that it takes a long time to change the patterns of bias, especially inside tech spaces that are habitually male-dominated.

“It starts at the top,” Egan said. “So when you give people permission to use these types of words, everything else becomes fair play very quickly. It’s about respect and trying to help people be the best versions of themselves.”

Gendered marketing in tech

Remember the PC ads from the 1980s? There were no young girls in sight, as Thomas pointed out, because the language and imagery used to market the life-changing devices were being customized toward boys.

“That made a huge impact in who we think computers are for,” said the content strategist, who also hosts a cognitive bias podcast.

In a personal bid to counter the narrative of STEAM-is-for-boys, Thomas bought a book on female scientists to read to his son, Kiran.

“Every night at bedtime we read another one,” said Thomas. This way, he said, Kiran won’t have to make an effort to correlate women with science.

The “technologist” label is broader than you think

Here’s a frequently asked question by potential attendees to the Women in Tech Summit (co-organized by Welson-Rossman): “Is this event for me?”

“It’s not the girls I’m worried about, but the women,” Welson-Rossman said. Women frequently exclude themselves from the “technologist” label, even those with titles as technical as a database administrator.

“Of course you are a technologist, it’s not just about being a coder,” said Welson-Rossman. “Who is giving you that language? … Women need to think about how they’re being treated at work, and think about the impact of the work they’re doing.”

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