4 Words to Stop Using at Work Before the Year 2095

At the current rate of change, the workplace will not see gender parity until the year 2095. And that's according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, so they know what they're talking about.


As we scramble to hasten that rate of change (and we should be scrambling), what can we do at a grassroots level to empower women and level the playing field? We don't all hold pursestrings tied to big initiatives that can affect immediate change, but we do all have choices in our everyday workplace interactions.

Language has power--and even casual office chit-chat can reinforce biased behavior amongst employees. While your organization may be telling women one thing-- to be more confident, take more risks, negotiate harder--do all the messages really add up?

Read the following four words commonly used in the workplace and ask yourself when the last time you heard them used was. Or, more telling, when was the last time you heard them used to describe a man?

"Bossy," the Schoolyard Complex

"Bossy" is a head-scratcher in that it's unique to the female experience. From a young age, women are told not to boss people around and are threatened with how "unlikeable" being bossy makes them. You know who's really bossy? Bosses. You know, the ones in charge. Feels like we should be encouraging boss-like behavior, doesn't it?

Sheryl Sandberg dropped the gender mic when she said, "I want every little girl who is told she is bossy to be told instead she has good leadership skills."

"Hon" or "Sweetie," the Denny's Waitress Complex

At Second City Works, we've seen men and women be equal perpetrators of this one--referring to colleagues or direct reports as "hon" or "sweetie" in conversation. The intent is kind; the effect is undermining. Everyone has to be very aware of the messages they send about the women they work with. When colleagues hear Jessica referred to as "hon" and Jake referred to as "my man" (or even just "Jake"), they absorb a subtle impression about Jessica's competence vs. Jake's.

"Difficult," the Double Standard Complex

This one might be the most baffling. We never hear men described as "difficult" at the same rate women are. Not to say that men aren't criticized at work--they are. Men are just given more specific (and therefore, easier to address) feedback. A man might be a "micromanager," causing him to be a pain to work with in a team situation. He might have a temper, causing him to get overly emotional in certain situations. (Surprise, everybody! Anger IS an emotion.) He might be overly defensive, which takes special handling.

But a woman is straight-up difficult. She can be "a problem." Rarely do we ever hear something more nitty-gritty than that, and even rarer is she given the feedback she needs to adjust her behavior. If you find the D-word on the tip of your tongue, challenge yourself to come up with something more defined and ask yourself if a man would be labeled the same way in the same circumstance.

"Cute," the Pretty Thing Complex

This one is my own personal worst language habit on the list. As a woman who was raised to be hyper-aware of her appearance, I notice what other women look like-- what they are wearing, how their hair is styled. (To be fair, I consistently notice when the men in our office get a haircut, too. I'm the haircut noticing champion.)

I actively coach myself out of commenting on my female colleagues' appearances, especially in group settings. By saying, "You look so cute today!" or commenting on a new pair of "cute boots," I am communicating to that employee that I value her appearance. Because I rarely comment on what men are wearing or how their hair looks (unless it is freshly shorn), I'm sending out signals that male praise is idea- and effort-focused, while female praise is appearance-focused. We can de-objectify women as "cute" by instead labeling their ideas as "smart," their efforts as "bold" and their work as "impactful."

I'm not suggesting that you have to ignore it when Denise comes in one day with a killer new wrap dress. People are not robots. This is about making a case for balance. Remember that true gender parity starts with our word choices. And if we can all agree to do away with the super-annoying word "ping" entirely, that would would probably do a lot to improve morale, too.

Find out more about Second City Works' improv-based business solutions and and register for a free upcoming webinar on March 16th, 2016, Mind the Gender Gap and Build the Workforce You Need.

Brynne Humphreys is the V.P. of Client Services for Second City Works.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women's Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What's Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations' theme for International Women's Day this year: "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality." To view all of the posts in the series, click here.