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Lexicon of Gender

This is a guide to assist you in holding conversations on gender equality with confidence and be more aware of gender bias in your current language and the everyday language used around you. It is not designed to tell you how to talk or not talk. Rather, it is to raise self-awareness of how you communicate in order to make it easier for you to bring more intention to the language you use.

Gendered language is so deeply entrenched in our everyday speech that many people don't even hear it anymore. Even if they do, it is understandable to question what the big deal is. Words are just words, aren't they? Well, yes and no. Literally taken, words are just letters on a page but more importantly they are also symbols of meaning that can convey our prejudices, fears and anxieties. This can affect a wide range of behaviours and lead to subtle biases. In that sense, it is worth taking a critical look at the words we choose to use and the social implications behind them.

The basic lingo

  • Gender is not a synonym for women or women's issues. Gender refers to the social, economic and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men as well as the relations between women and those between men.
  • Gender equality refers to the aim of equal visibility, empowerment and participation of both sexes. It is about making opportunism and life chances equal while valuing the differences and diverse roles played by each sex. In the workplace, this translates into being just as much about enabling men to access to part-time work arrangements as it is about women feeling supported enough to apply for senior leadership roles in greater numbers.
  • Gender mainstreaming is the active process of assessing the implication of legislation, policy and programmes on gender equality. This includes critically assessing at the design, implementation and evaluation stages to ensure that gender equality concepts are in-built.
  • Gender bias is the unequal treatment in employment opportunity (such as promotion, pay abd benefits), and expectations of performance due to attitudes based on the sex of an employee or group of employees.
  • Unconscious bias are the biases that people have but are not in conscious control of. They occur automatically as a result of our brains making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations. These judgements are socially learnt and based on our background, cultural environment and experiences. To see an example of unconscious bias, watch the Like a Girl video campaign.

Speaking with confidence

Talking about gender may seem daunting and you may be worried about choosing the wrong words or your intent being misconstrued. Below are some starter sentences to give you some guidance on how to approach gender with your staff.

  • Choose the positive and avoid making gender equality a zero sum game.
    • An example starter sentence: "The Gender Equality Strategy is not about holding men back, it is about ensuring every employee has the ability to access opportunity." "Gender equality will enable both men and women to access initiatives and opportunities equally"
  • Focus on the business case.
    • An example starter sentence: "The Gender Equality Strategy will enable our agency to tap into new pools of talent, identify staff for further development, and retain the staff that we have already invested in. In a competitive recruitment market, it makes business sense to position ourselves more strategically."
  • Use the numbers to tell the story.
    • An example starter sentence: "While there have been achievements at the Executive Level, the higher you look up in leadership the fewer women you see. Women comprise only 36 per cent of SES Band 2s and 35 per cent of SES band 3s. And the number of female Secretaries remains unchanged at five. This is a core gender challenge for the Australian Public Service to address."
  • Acknowledge the good work done to avoid upsetting people already engaged in this space.
    • An example starter sentence: "The public service has already made great strides towards gender equality, such as reaching gender parity at the EL1 level in 2015. The Strategy is an opportunity to build on these achievements."

The nitty gritty of gendered inclusive language

  • Using male generics – when addressing a group of people, you use "hi guys" or "hi fellas"
    • Some neutral alternatives: "hi team", "hi everyone", "hi all"
  • Using the feminine to describe weakness – "like a girl" (i.e. throw like a girl, fight like a girl)
    • Some neutral alternatives: "I know you have the strength to do this"
  • Using the diminutive for women or patronising expressions – "girls", "girls chat" (would you say "boys chat" or simply "discussion"?), "the lovely ladies in reception"
    • Some neutral alternatives: "female colleagues", "team chat", "group discussion", "receptionists"
  • Using the pronoun "he" or "she" when referring to people in general. Studies have shown people tend to default to "he" when referring to high-status occupations, like a doctor or lawyer, and shift to "she" when talking about secretaries, clerks, or nurses.
    • Some neutral alternatives: Use the plural ("Each doctor must present their ID"); use both pronouns ("The doctor must present his or her ID"); eliminate the pronoun altogether ("Each doctor must present ID"); or address the reader directly ("You must present your ID").
  • Using gendered occupation titles – "chairman", "cleaning lady", "policeman", "businessman" etc.
    • Some neutral alternatives: "chairperson", "office cleaner", "police officer", "business person" etc.

Further resources

  • Download: Lexicon of Gender (Download Word)
  • Watch your language - Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language (Download PDF)
  • Annexes to the UNDP Gender Equality Strategy 2014-17: The Future we Want: Rights and Empowerment (Download PDF)
  • Guidelines of Gender-Neutral Language (Download PDF)
Last reviewed: 
23 May 2018