Gender-biased language in tech negatively impacts women at work; here's how

By Iyanuoluwa Adenle | Oct 29, 2022

The tech industry is known for biases, workplace policies, and gender-biased language, which exclude women from time to time. This is despite the significant contributions made by the advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) while faced with systemic barriers and gender discrimination. 

According to 2022 Women in Technology Statistics, 71 per cent of women have worked in tech companies where they have felt excluded because of the active "tech bro”  culture. The tech industry is already male-dominated, and based on this report, 63 per cent of men in tech believe that their workplaces are diverse and that the gender and pay gap, which has been a constant in the workplace, is unreal. 

Thirty-nine per cent of women believed that gender bias was why they weren’t advancing in their careers. Women are being discouraged from venturing into tech because of many reasons like unequal opportunities, lack of female mentors and role models, and unequal salaries for the same job roles. 

Top of the list of factors that has made more women leave the tech industry includes gender discrimination, inappropriate behaviour, and the use of gender-biased language in the workplace. 

The  European Institute for Gender Equality defines gender-biased language as a form of gender-discriminatory language. Gender-biased language is one that openly or unintentionally favours one gender over the other. 

In the tech workplace, it has been used to establish hierarchy and reinforce status. Gendered language can be used in an unnecessarily coddling manner that is subtle in the workplace. The person at the receiving end may not be aware that they are being treated condescendingly, and they might not be able to verbalize the unease they feel. 

There have been many instances where women in tech have felt like they were being discriminated against in the workplace. An example is during the recruitment process. Gender-biased languages have been found in job postings that discourage women and non-binary people from applying to tech jobs. 

Some jobs use keywords like ‘authoritative’, ‘disciplined’, ‘driven’, ‘strong’, and ‘creative’ in their postings. These words are masculine-coded words typically used to describe men in the past. Some women might indeed see this job post and apply without thinking that the use of language is gendered. 

The wrong phrasing of the job description might also discourage other women from applying as it would be assumed that the company is looking for men to fill the listed positions. Women tend not to apply for jobs until they are confident they meet all the job criteria, while men apply for more jobs as long as they believe they have met 60 per cent of the job requirements. 

Another subtle way that tech companies can express sexism is asking if women who are qualified for the role are interested in having children after they've been hired. No one asks men during (and after) the hiring process about their spouses or if they want or don’t want kids. This is one of the many ways women get excluded from specific roles in the workplace. 

In the workplace, women in leadership positions have been called ‘aggressive’, ‘inconsiderate’, ‘bossy’, ‘needy’ or ‘bitchy’ while their male counterparts in leadership positions have been praised for their ‘doggedness’ and ‘display of authority’. In a recent study conducted by Harvard Business Review, researchers found that female employees are more likely to be labeled as less talented than their male counterparts. In their report, they noted that while there were no differences in performance between female and male employees, females were viewed as less capable at work because of stereotypes about gender roles in society. 

The hyper-scrutiny and scepticism have had most women in the tech workplace second-guessing themselves, their skills and the quality of their work. It is more common for women to use self-deprecating phrases like, “I don’t know, but…” -when they are an expert in that field -  and “I may be wrong, but…” in the workplace, especially in a male-dominated one. 

Women also tend to look apologetic, surprised, or even unsure about what they say in the workplace to seem more agreeable to their male colleagues. This can lead to their opinions being undervalued. 

Gender-biased languages, deeply rooted in misogyny and sexism, might appear harmless. It might also be used to endear or humiliate women in the workplace. Workplaces need to call out bias when we see it to avoid normalizing such behaviour.  

Companies need to create a healthy and inclusive work environment that will make women and non-binary people feel more comfortable being themselves. The work culture must be inclusive so that women and non-binary people at any level in the workforce can feel heard without the need to modify their language. 

They need to identify triggering workplace language and reframe how they speak about women working in tech. More women need to get into tech. More women need to occupy leadership positions in the workplace to influence the decisions relating to the diversity and inclusion of women in the industry.  

HIDDEN - to trigger update. rm later