I got an email the other day, a good idea forwarded to me unedited. In it there was a reference to “the girls” helping. By the girls did he mean my esteemed colleagues in Europe? I was so annoyed that I almost lost the thread of the email, which was indeed a very good idea.
It is not that as a woman and a feminist I am too sensitive to handle accidental sexism. It is a constant. But it stands in the way of effective communication. This post is not a scold but a reminder to rid your communications from anything that might alienate a reader or distract half of your audience from your message.
Here are five common sexist mistakes in communication and how to solve or avoid them.
How many times has a woman been forced to politely answer one of these? It’s an old school mistake that makes us roll our eyes before we even read the correspondence.
Problem: How do you open an email or letter when you do not know the identity of its receiver?
Solution: Address the reader by their function or role. Remember when firemen became firefighters? A more descriptive subject may actually help your message reach the right ears, and without friction. Dear Hiring Manager. Dear Colleague. Dear Friend.
The universal He
“He or she” can be cumbersome and “they” is grammatically incorrect.
Problem: Our language has set us up for failure by not giving us a gender neutral pronoun for third person singular.
Solution: If it works, try “you”. Other options are “(s)he” or alternating “she” and “he” if there are multiple examples. Just be very cautious about using “she” for any example of incompetence.
The extraneous gender identifier
Do you need to say “female doctor” or “male nurse”? Is it relevant to the topic or story?
Problem: Gender roles and biases are so deeply embedded, we do not even realize we are making the slip. Women sometimes fall into the same trap. We assume a doctor or other professional is a male unless otherwise stated.
Solution: Reread. Rerun the sentence with the other gender as an adjective instead. If it sounds funny, eliminate it. And if you catch yourself making this mistake in speech, correct yourself.
Any good writer aims to clarify her point with vivid imagery and concrete metaphors. And that impulse is good. Metaphors can succinctly clarify meaning and crystallize a point.
Problem: Many women (and some men) do not follow sports closely and may not understand your more obscure references.
Solution: Stick with universal experiences. Instead of punting, try passing or postponing. Instead of a slam dunk, let something be a sure thing.
Disclaimer: I realize that there are plenty of women who do follow sports and who use sports metaphors. But there will be people who miss or guess at the meaning of their words. Likewise, there are men who will miss these references.
Pandering and patronizing
There are many ways this can manifest, and it is never intentional. Still, we all know pandering when we are subjected to it. Just because I am a woman buying a product pitched to women does not mean I need to addressed with hot pink headlines or called sister.
Problem: You are defining your audience too narrowly, misidentifying them, or misunderstanding them, perhaps working from shallow stereotypes.
Solution: Take the time to understand your audience. Use data and polling, and A/B test messaging and design. But before you even get that far, assemble an informal group of acquaintances who resemble your target audience and test your messages with them before launch.
Awareness is 51% of the battle in good, gender-neutral communications. A little thought can ensure your message is well received by all in your audience.