Focus on ‘guys’ misses the point(s) of the WordsAtWork campaign

Lisa Annese
Topics Inclusion
Lisa Annese DCA CEO - Words

The launch of our new #WordsAtWork campaign has given us a fascinating insight into the power of language. It has certainly garnered a lot of attention, both positive and negative!

Many people have contacted us to offer their thanks for tackling a difficult issue in the hope that inclusive language will make them feel less isolated. On the other hand, many have criticized us for being what they think is politically correct and the language police.

It is somewhat ironic that our aim to have a respectful evidence-based rational debate about language has turned into the opposite – at least if social media is anything to go by!

What is the campaign trying to achieve?

Our campaign is about the workplace. Research tells us that inclusive work cultures are high performance cultures – they deliver greater performance and productivity. It also shows us that non-inclusive language at work promotes stereotyping; harms witnesses as well as intended targets; stops career advancement by presenting targets as incompetent and not suitable for leadership roles; and leads to tolerance of hostile feelings and discrimination against people from excluded groups.

Businesses across the country told us that they were struggling to find guidance about how to better include all members of their increasingly diverse workplaces.

In response, we developed the campaign video, series of guides and education program for workplaces to show how inclusive language can improve workplace culture and drive productivity.

Let’s be clear. We are not telling people what they can and can’t say. We are simply asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and look at what they say from another perspective – and be open to changing what they have always thought is ‘normal’, respectful and appropriate to say.

What is wrong with the ‘guy’ word?

We did not seek to highlight any particular word in our campaign. ‘Guys’ is not featured in the campaign video but it has been seized upon by some media.

We accept that many people see ‘guys’ as a gender neutral term. However, it should be acknowledged that while it may not bother most people, it has historically been a gender-based term and some women still feel excluded by its use. We wouldn’t think of using the word ‘girls’ to address a group of men, so it should be possible to see why using ‘guys’ for all human beings can exclude.

There is however no shortage of other words that are highly offensive to people of different backgrounds and abilities that are widely used at work.

Is this campaign political correctness gone mad?

No. Inclusive language is not about being ‘politically correct’ – it is about using language which is respectful, accurate, and relevant to everyone. As writer Jarune Uwujaren puts it:

“Making a conscious decision to avoid particular words and phrases is not about coddling people or shielding them from offense – it’s about chipping away at the idea that alienating people through language is acceptable in the first place.”

Often those who complain about language being too PC have never been on the receiving end of it. Try considering another person’s perspective to understand why they may be offended.

Research shows that frequent ‘low-level’ workplace bias experiences are just as harmful as less frequent intense experiences like sexual coercion and harassment. 

Who appointed you the language police?

This isn’t about policing language. The way we work has changed over time to keep pace with a range of social, economic, and technological shifts. Inclusive language at work is just one more tool organisations can use to respond to these shifts and deliver better business outcomes.

We developed the guides based on what people with lived experience and/or organisations who make up and represent given diversity groups say.

Aren’t people being too sensitive/shouldn’t they just toughen up?

The way we speak to each other creates a culture in which everyone can feel valued, respected, and one of the team (included). The flipside is that the way we speak to each other also can make people feel under-valued, disrespected, and out of place (excluded). 

As Dawn Hough, Program Director of Pride in Diversity, explains in relation to LGBT people:

"It is not sufficient to say that LGBT people should be more 'thick-skinned'. LGBT people experience negativity associated with their sexual orientation or gender identity all their lives. When it is allowed to continue into the workplace, it contributes to an environment where LGBT people can't be themselves and perform to their true potential. This has very real and detrimental effects on the health and well-being of LGBT people”.

Why don’t you focus on other, more important issues?

Well as the saying goes, we can walk and chew gum at the same time!

For many years we have focused on helping employers build diverse and inclusive workplaces. We have conducted ground breaking research in areas that no-one else has focused on. And we are constantly striving to keep our members up to date on the latest trends and help them make real change on the ground in their workplaces.

Why don’t you stop wasting tax-payers money on this campaign?

This is one of the more bizarre comments we have received!

DCA is the only independent, not-for-profit workplace diversity advisor to business in Australia. We are not funded by government – we are funded by membership fees, sponsorships and services to business.

We were created by the business community 30 years ago to advise businesses and organisations on diversity and inclusion. We have over 300 member organisations, many of whom are Australia’s business diversity leaders and biggest employers.

Our #WordsAtWork campaign is supported by Aurecon who believes inclusive language is one of many important tools to build diverse and inclusive workplaces.

What can we all do to make a difference?

All we are asking is that people stop and think before they speak, and be respectful. We have developed these five steps to inclusive language in the workplace:

  1. Keep an open mind. Be open to changing what you have always thought is ‘normal’, respectful and appropriate to say. You don’t have to be perfect – just be willing to learn.
  2. Focus on the person first. Only refer to an individual’s age, cultural background, gender etc. if it is relevant.
  3. Consider context. Sometimes people can use terms about themselves or their friends that are not appropriate for others to use about someone in a work context.
  4. If in doubt, ask. If you’re not sure what terminology someone prefers, just ask them!
  5. Keep calm and respond. Instead of defending your actions (e.g. “I was only joking.”) try understanding the other person’s perspective (e.g. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to offend you. Could you explain why you didn’t like what I said?”).

Rather than getting bogged down on one word, let’s focus on the importance of respect and inclusion in the workplace. Surely this is something all fair-minded people can agree on?


Lisa Annese has been Chief Executive Officer for Diversity Council Australia since June 2014.

This piece first appeared in The Huffington Post Australia.

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