Working across Genders

What you'll learn to do: Discuss the how gender impacts communication in the workplace

White DNA pattern with a rainbow background. What’s in a chromosome (or two)? The difference in the pair of sex chromosomes determines whether a child is assigned female (XX) or male (XY) at birth has a significant impact on the individual’s personal and professional development. It is not biology that affects our experience and expectations in the workplace (as some who would justify gender inequality would propose), but socialization, an accumulation of cultural, historical, and legal precedent that has created the gender divide in our society.

According to the Brookings Institution “large gaps remain between men and women in employment rates, the jobs they hold, the wages they earn, and their overall economic security.” This is not just a women’s issue. In a publication from the Hamilton Project at Brookings, the authors conclude that “barriers to workforce participation for women are stifling the growth of the U.S. economy, and that future economic success hinges on improving career prospects and working environments for all women.”[8]

Over the years, gendered terms (for example, “men”) have come to be interpreted more broadly; that is, as referring to both men and women, but the language is hardly inclusive. Indeed, the concept of gender as binary—that is, either female or male—may itself be an anachronism. As the traditional ideas of gender and gender identity are evolving and in order to adapt to a changing reality, the language and operating framework must change accordingly.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss different strategies to use gender neutral language in business communication
  • Compare and contrast how gender might impact communications styles

Using Gender Neutral Language

Five polaroid style portraits of men and women in a animated cartoon style. The use of gender-neutral language is now considered standard practice, incorporated in the APA (American Psychological Association) and other style guides that are the linguistic “bibles” for journalists, academics, and students. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab is an excellent writing resource; their APA Stylistics: Avoiding Bias page links to further discussion and specific recommendations for how to appropriately represent people in your writing, including sections on Disabilities, Race & Ethnicity, and Sex and Gender.

In order to achieve a more gender-inclusive end, The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recommends focusing on three areas: gendered nouns, titles and names, and pronouns. Specific recommendations and examples:

  1. Replace gendered nouns with more neutral language. This can be challenging, in particular when there is an established expectation or association. In updating the Star Trek franchise, writers replaced the “where no man has gone before” tagline with the more inclusive “where no one has gone before,” retaining both the rhythm and promise of the iconic phrase.
  2. Choose equitable titles and names. To illustrate, use Ms. or other appropriate title (Professor, Dr., etc.) that doesn’t define a woman in terms of her relationship with a man. In both written and verbal contexts, give a woman the same respect as you would a man. For example, using both a first and last name or title and last name rather than an informal first name.
  3. Use pronouns equitably. As mentioned above, using masculine pronouns (“he,” “his,” “him”) as the “default” is no longer an accepted practice. Instead, consider the following options:

    • Use more than one pronoun: If you don’t know the gender of the person the pronoun refers to, use “he or she” or her/him. Note: Be aware of your audience; using “he or she” may exclude people who do not relate to either pronoun. In that case, you may want to use a more inclusive, albeit rather lengthy, “he/she/they.”
    • Alternate genders and pronouns: If the person being referred to could be either female or male, alternate using the masculine and feminine pronouns. Be sure to do this in a way that doesn't confuse your listener/reader by making it sound as though multiple people are involved when there's just one.
    • Make your nouns and pronouns plural: This sidesteps the gender issue for your audience by making it sound as if there is more than on for example, he or she becomes they.
    • Use “they” as a singular pronoun: Although “they” generally refers to a plural antecedent—that is, is used as a plural pronoun—it is also used as a gender-neutral pronoun. Again, know your audience.

Practice Question

Are There Differences in Gender Communication?

Two men and two women standing in a circle talking to each other. Starting in childhood, girls and boys are generally socialized to belong to distinct cultures based on their gender and thus speak in ways particular to their own gender’s rules and norms (Fivush; Hohnson; Tannen). This pattern of gendered socialization continues throughout our lives. As a result, men and women often interpret the same conversation differently. Culturally diverse ways of speaking based on gender can cause miscommunication between members of each culture or speech community. These cultural differences are seen in the simple purpose of communication.

Although gender roles are changing and gender itself is becoming a more fluid concept, traditional roles still influence our communication behaviors. For those socialized to traditional female gender norms, an important use of communication is to create and foster relational connections with other people (Johnson; Stamou). In contrast, the goal of men’s communication is primarily to establish identity. This is accomplished by demonstrating independence and control and entertaining or performing for others.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics and the author of multiple books on gender and language, provides the following examples of differences in men's and women’s communication:

  • “Men engage in report talk, women in rapport talk.”

    • Report talk is used to demonstrate one’s knowledge and expertise.
    • Rapport talk is used to share and cultivate relationships.

  • Women request; men direct.

    • For example, in communicating a request, a female manager might say: “Could you do this by 5 PM?” A male manager would typically phrase it: “This needs to be done by 5 PM.”

  • Women are information focused; men are image focused.

    • For example, women are willing to ask questions to clarify understanding. Men tend to avoid asking clarifying questions in order to preserve their reputation.

  • Empathy is not apology.

    • Women often use the phrase “I'm sorry” to express concern or empathy. Men tend to interpret this phrase as an acceptance of responsibility for the situation, which it is not.

  • Women are judged by their appearance; men are judged by what they say and do.[9]

As in all things, it's important to remember that while these differences exist between groups, all individuals will fall somewhere along a spectrum of these tendencies. Additionally, you may run into men who demonstrate more "feminine" tendencies in their speech or vice versa.

Practice Question

Gender in the World

Traditional gender roles also influence how women are heard, as Tannen alluded to above. The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organization notes that the historical marginalization of women is still in practice today, with media coverage of women leaders often focusing on fashion sensibility rather than on the strength of their leadership. There is a “Catch-22” for women: “to be ‘too feminine’ is to risk being perceived as weak and emotional or as manipulative and devious when exercising leadership; to be ‘insufficiently feminine’ generally results in being labeled as masculine, abrasive or pushy.” [10]

Thus, gender not only impacts the language we use but the language used to describe us.

Although changing demographics and social trends have begun to erode the base of white male privilege, there are still strong cultural norms that resist this change in the status quo. Additionally, the composition of executive leadership still remains predominantly white male, and organizational culture and communications are largely designed to support that dominance. We see the legacy of that dysfunction in a variety of modes, from pussy hats to the #metoo movement.

James Damore

We see this struggle playing out at Google, where efforts to include more women in technical roles are meeting with some resistance. The conflict surfaced when James Damore, a white male engineer, posted a ten page critique of Google’s diversity efforts titled "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" on an internal discussion board. One of the most inflammatory points made was that “biological differences between men and women might explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” In his memo, Damore states his belief that women are better attuned to aesthetics and people rather than ideas and that this, as well as their “higher agreeableness” (versus aggressiveness) and “neuroticism,” rather than sexism accounts for gender gaps. The “manifesto,” as some call it, resulted in Damore being fired for violating Google's code of conduct by "advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded to the memo in a note to employees, which includes this excerpt: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.’”

In a development that reflects the nation’s sociopolitical polarization, it appears Damore’s firing, rather than ending the issue, has turned him into what a USA Today writer terms a “hero of a resurgent conservative movement.” Damore has since filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming the search giant discriminates against white, conservative men. In a development worth watching, Damore and David Gudeman, another former Google engineer, are being represented by Harmeet Dhillon, the Republican National Committee’s committeewoman for California. Her law firm is seeking class action status for the plaintiffs.

Gendered Language at Princeton

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Princeton University is an example of an organization that has a clear commitment to inclusivity in both policy and practice. However, it has also met with resistance in moving toward an inclusive campus. In a rather controversial 2015 memo announcing its new communication policy, Princeton drew the distinction between gendered and gender inclusive language, explaining that “gender binary is the traditional view on human gender, which does not take into consideration individuals who identify as otherwise, including and not limited to transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming and or intersex.” In contrast, “gender-inclusive language is writing and speaking about people in a manner that does not use gender-based words.”[11]

Some media interpreted the guidelines as an attempt to suppress free speech. Princeton’s clarification: “No words or phrases have been banned at the University, which places a high value (on) free expression.”[12]

Conservative factions also interpreted this statement as an attack. For example,, a conservative blog, presented the college’s new gender policy as another example of liberal bias and “abuse against conservatives on America’s colleges and universities.” In a post titled “Princeton students can choose any—or every—gender identity” the author, Matthew Penza, closed with a call for donations to support Campus Reform’s “investigative journalism,” stating that “College campuses are no longer bastions of higher learning. Professors indoctrinate students with their agendas. They even silence conservative students with their attempts to suppress free speech.”[13] For perspective, Campus Reform is a project of Leadership Institute, an organization whose mission is to teach conservative Americans how to influence policy through direct participation, activism, and leadership.[14]

Practice Question

  1. Burke, "Alison. \"10 facts about American women in the workforce.\" Brookings, 05 Dec 2017. Web. 26 June 2018."
  2. Bucher, "Richard D. Diversity Consciousness Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities. Pearson, 2015, p 130."
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  8. Burke, "Alison. \"10 facts about American women in the workforce.\" Brookings, 05 Dec 2017. Web. 26 June 2018."
  9. Bucher, "Richard D. Diversity Consciousness Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities. Pearson, 2015, p 130."
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