Every word we utter conveys something about us. Most of the time assume that our words accurately express our thinking and our values. But at other times expressions creep in and end up conveying hidden meanings that we may not have intended.
Here are four areas where we need to update our language.
Leaving women out of history
We need to be aware of sexual bias in historical quotations. Historically, men were often seen to represent the human race, and mankind was accepted as the equivalent of humanity. But this usage is anachronistic today.
Those who drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence declared that “All men are created equal.” Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, famously said: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” But if we repeat these statements uncritically, they suggest that these rights and achievements are limited to men. That sentiment is offensive.
Don’t tamper with the text. But you can paraphrase these quotations. For example, you might say in a speech, “Our forefathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence believed that all of us are created equal.” And then add, “And that’s exactly what we believe in this company. No matter your title or rank, we are all equal in deserving to have a voice.”
Casual greetings that ignore women
Who has not heard a colleague launch into a meeting agenda by saying, “Gentlemen,” even when there are women present? It’s equally distasteful when the leader attempting to accommodate the one woman in the room says, “Let’s begin, gentlemen . . . and Brenda.” Such language makes males the norm, and females nonexistent or an afterthought.
It’s also common to hear “you guys,” as in “Which of you guys want to volunteer to get coffee?” or “Hey guys, let’s cut the discussion.” This language ignores the fact that there are often females present—and therefore marginalizes the women.
Finally, we often hear “man” refer to anyone who happens to be present. As in “Hey, man, what’s up?” Or “Awesome, man,” when complimenting someone. There is no female equivalent to these expressions. And “awesome, man” suggests that when kudos are given out, the language becomes masculine.
Such office talk needs to be abandoned if we are to have an inclusive workplace.
Generic male language in the media
We also see the use of men rather than people and mankind rather than humanity in newspaper articles and promotional campaigns. In discussing space exploration, the British newspaper the Telegraph featured an article with a headline that included the words, “Elon Musk: the saviour of mankind.”
With similar insensitivity, Airbnb launched an ad campaign called “Is Mankind?” The idea behind this campaign was to explore the notion that people are kind (and therefore willing to open their homes to strangers). The company may have realized that “mankind,” while a clever double entendre, does not represent a diverse world of people. So in one version of their commercial, they added an awkward series of words: “mankind, womankind, transkind, humankind.” Clearly they were grappling with an idea but wanted to make sure they were seen as enlightened. Better than riffing on mankind is using person or people.
How we talk about the world we’ve created
Still another area where we use man when we should say “people” is in our description of “man-made” structures and products that define our world. The term “man-made” is applied to everything we humans have created. There is even a list of “the 30 best man-made sites in the world.” On a smaller scale, there are “man-made” bridges, houses, and industrial products that grace every room of our homes.
Any time you use the phrase “man-made” to define something we humans have created, you are perpetuating the notion that men alone have created this world we live in. Say no to such language.
We must use language that embodies inclusivity. Words matter. Choose language that reflects your values and vision of the world. The poet T.S. Eliot write in The Four Quartets,”Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Language that excludes or demeans women is one reality we should not bear.