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Gendered Language in the Workplace

Dr Bride Cruickshank

Dr Bride Cruickshank is a fellow of intensive care currently working in Sydney


Gendered language abounds in medicine. It can be seen in everyday communication, both formal and informal, oral and written, in our professional and personal lives. It is a result of historical and societal gender stereotypes, and refers to language that displays a particular bias towards a social gender.

It comes in all forms, and with it those subconscious implications that make us feel slightly less welcome. The hypothetical doctor constantly referred to as ‘he’. Hearing a registrar described as the ‘female trainee’. The still controversial yet pervasive tendency to refer to a group of people of mixed genders as ‘guys’. Most galling, I have been in a group referred to as “chaps” (with the term vehemently defended as a gender-encompassing phrase when I pointed out that we were mostly not chaps, but in fact only one was male).

More and more, I feel like an outsider when this language is used.

These gendered colloquialisms have become so prevalent that it is easy to see them as harmless or an unfortunate but fixed part of our vernacular. Seeing otherwise is hard work. It takes effort to recognise it in our day-to-day communication. Even more difficult, how do we attempt to correct this language in others without creating conflict or awkwardness? So I reflect, and learn from my seniors, colleagues, and peers (of all genders and identities), from those who have mastered the ability to jovially correct these phrases, without causing embarrassment, conflict, or derailing the conversation.

So what can we do? Language has a powerful role in shaping cultural attitudes, so using gender-inclusive language is one way to promote gender equality and eradicate bias. The UN even has a workshop on how to do it.

Firstly, be present. Notice when gendered language is used. This is the first step to creating change, which after all is what WIN is all about.

Secondly, recognise it in ourselves. It takes vigilance and effort to be aware of the language I use – and I am certain that I still have phrases that slip out unconsciously. But each time I use an alternative phrase, pronoun or sentence, it is one less time gendered language is heard and accepted as normal.

Thirdly, speak up when you hear others do it. Correct someone if they refer to the hypothetical registrar as ‘he’ – it only takes a smile and a quick interjection of “or she, or they” to make a point. Use “team” or “everyone” in place of “guys”. Look for those same role models I have had and learn from them. And when it is more explicit or harmful, speak up – it will either be received well, or if badly received or defended, it will at least serve to raise awareness of the issue.

Finally, don't give up. It is hard work to remain vigilant in correcting this sort of language. Be reassured that it is not always intentional, it may be a turn of phrase from someone who simply has not recognised its implications. And importantly, be reassured that we still have allies, even amongst those who say “thanks guys”.

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Great reminders, and memes! Thanks!

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