Inclusive language is one of the key components of inclusive cultures. I have written about my journey in unlearning the infantilisation of women in my language (see Girls to Women). Now, we can tackle a more contentious phrase.
I know, a lot of people think that outlawing the use of ‘guys’ is political correctness gone mad.
But what if we thought about it as something that just needs a little more critical and reflective thinking?
In Australia, the inclusive language conversation saw a lot of attention after the release of Diversity Council Australia’s Words at Work campaign in 2016. Then the Australian Financial Review explored the neutrality of the phrase ‘guys’, citing Oxford Dictionary’s position of ‘guys’ being a gender-neutral term.
Yes, ‘guys’ is commonly used to address a group of either men, or a mix of genders (“Hi guys!”). However, it is rarely the description used for a mixed-gender group, but rather a group of men (“We will get the geotech guys to look at it.” – most likely you pictured a group of men. Most likely it is a group of men).
So, when we claim this word as gender-neutral, but we only mean it half the time, is it really inclusive?
Now let’s transpose this conversation on male-dominated STEM industries such as engineering.
The baseline of my everyday experience in engineering is the masculine. Our culture was designed by men, for men, and women are made to feel like we don’t belong, or that we are always the different ones. I am often the only woman in the room, surrounded by men who wear the unofficial engineering firm uniform of checked shirts. Everything about my environment tells me I am an interloper. Different. Other.
When people use ‘guys’ to refer to my teams or groups, it is just another sign telling me that this environment is not where I am supposed to belong. Because at the same time people claim it is un-offensive and gender-neutral, they use it to legitimately refer to groups exclusively comprised of men. It’s an ‘inclusive’ term only when it is convenient to be inclusive. Yes, you can speak to some women who don’t have issue with the word, but you can also find men who don’t use the word anymore, like Australia’s former Chief of Army, David Morrison.
While we might say the roots of ‘guys’ is gender neutral (it actually comes from Guy Fawkes), the intent and outcome of its use is masculine. When everything else in our industry (position names, behaviour, language, even the people) has a masculine baseline, and when we see anything feminine as ‘different’, we should strive to be more inclusive in any way we can – particularly if greater diversity is such an industry priority.
Add to this conversation that ‘guys’ can misgender transgender or gender non-conforming people in the workplace, being mindful and respectful of peoples’ lived experiences in STEM should be enough to try out some more inclusive alternatives.
There is another school of thought that thinks we have bigger inequity issues to address than one small word. There are many issues we are still yet to address, however problematic language forms the basis of the sexual violence pyramid. Inclusive language can help to remove the entitlement and expectations associated with a toxic masculine culture, which is often the foundation for much more problematic behaviour.
When I was teaching in my PhD, I stopped referring to my classes (which included ~ 6% women) as ‘guys’. I would use ‘students’, ‘team’, and ‘people’. And do you know what? It wasn’t that hard. The effort it took for me to change one word was worth removing one more cultural signifier that women didn’t belong in STEM. To me, it was a step in the right direction.
Give it a go, here are a few phrases that you can try out to see what fits your style:
Everyone / everybody
Positions, such as ‘students / associates / analysts / planners / designers / engineers’