06/13/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Watch Your Language

There's been a radical positive change in American business culture, accelerated by expanding legal protections and the explosion of social media. The workplace has been purged -- at least formally -- of verbal slurs related to race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation.

Social stigma and legal sanctions may not change what some biased people think and even whisper. Yet these twin pressures have had a strong muzzling effect. Even in the smallest and most private enterprises, employers and employees recognize there's a strong chance of disapproval if they use an epithet. Racist or homophobic remarks that were once accepted or tolerated are now taboo, as LA Clippers (current) owner Donald Sterling has learned.

There is a large segment of the population segment still lacking respect: women -- who are more than half of the adults in the United States. We have read the studies of job candidates that reveal gender prejudices because Mr. Dale Smith receives higher marks than Ms. Dale Smith. We know too well the demeaning adjectives often applied to women in positions of power. We've heard the jokes about hair color or anatomy or driving skills.

Language can inspire or hurt. Language can unite or divide. It can express a new way of thinking or reinforce old stereotypes.

The expression "man up" instead of "take responsibility" excludes half the population. And what's the female equivalent of "man up"? The time to excuse this sexist language is long over.

Some of the most egregious examples of sexist language are heard on athletic fields when coaches belittle their male players by comparing them to women and girls. Clearly, these coaches think women are the only group still acceptable to denigrate. This needs to stop. The words we use have staying power and reinforce gender discrimination.

We all can act to end sexist language. Censor yourself. Call out your peers. Raise your voice and object. While it's true that changing language may not change hearts, it's a start to a more civil society when every person has an opportunity to thrive and where every person is made welcome.