04/01/2015 02:56 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2015

'Gents', 'Fellas', 'Boys' - How Language Is Telling Women They Don't Belong


Sitting at my desk today, dress and new flats on, I opened an email sent to me and my group with the first line "Gents, I need your help with this hard technical issue..." In one swift motion, I uncrossed my legs to firmly press my feet into the ground and leaned forward as I peered over my glasses in question.

Why am I so peeved by someone using the word "gents"? I've been known to let phrases like "Thank you gentlemen" dance off my tongue before to thank a couple men who I knew well. But this use was in an email to my entire group, not just a couple men.

What is unsettling is the exclusiveness of the language used. It was like the author (probably unintentionally) set the tone that the men in my group were more likely to answer the question or that the men were smarter. Or even that there were no men in my team, because of the highly technical nature of our work (some background here -- I'm the sole female engineer on a team of seven).

It's been proven that language choices matter, especially when it comes to gender exclusion. Recently, Harvey Mudd College was able to dramatically increase its enrollment of women in engineering classes by revisiting the language used to title and describe classes.

Back to the "gents" email, what effect did this have on me and my employer? Well, there was some lost time in productivity as I questioned why I was even upset. It made me question if I'm part of the team, and set the standard of acceptable and common behavior. Worse, what if this was the norm that fathers took home to their kids? What does this attitude imprint on the future generation?

Why does gender diversity matters in the workplace? Women and men solve problems very differently, and that's especially important when it comes to engineering, which is just a fancy word for "problem solving". If we settle for a majority of one gender as engineers, we risk problems being less than ideally fixed or even going unsolved (think cancer cures, keeping bridges from collapsing, etc).

As one imperfect person to another, I encourage openness, inclusiveness, and standing up for others. Let's watch using gender exclusive language, like "gents", "fellas", or "boys" on emails unless we are 100 percent sure that all are men, and want to be referred to as men. Need an inclusive, fail-safe word? Just use "all" or if cowboy boots are more your style, feel free to use "y'all".