While using terms like “sweetheart” and “babe” in the workplace may come from a friendly place, they can cause female staff to feel undervalued and land you in hot water.
The recent brouhaha over at the ABC shone a light on the use of gendered language in the workplace, when Justin Milne was accused of referring to female staff as “chicks” and “babes”. What are the legal and social pitfalls of using gendered language at work?
It should go without saying that using terms like “chicks” and “babes” to refer to female colleagues and employees is inappropriate. But what about “ladies”, “girls”, “sweetheart” or “love”?
There’s a plethora of terms used to refer to women which can infantilise, undermine and sexualise women. This can be the case regardless of whether they are said with warmth and friendliness, and without malicious intention. Use of such language may delegitimise a woman’s contribution in the workplace and make them feel demoralised and disrespected.
On the other hand, consider the way male gendered language is used. “Chairman”, “manpower”, and “IT guy” roll off the tongue to refer to men and women collectively. Similarly, while “guys” is often used to refer to a group collectively, regardless of gender, “girls” would never be used the same way. Further, these terms attribute male characteristics to tasks and roles, excluding or ignoring women’s involvement or contribution.
There are several legal risks that arise from the use of gendered language in the workplace.
Firstly, using sexualising terms like “babe” could form the basis of a sexual harassment claim, as using such language may constitute unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. In 2006, a NSW tribunal found that calling a female employee “babe” and “honey” constituted sexual harassment. These days, it’s difficult to envisage circumstances where calling your female colleague “babe” during a meeting or at the office would be welcome.
The consistent use of gendered language could also precipitate an unlawful discrimination complaint. For example, a manager known for using “chicks” to refer to the females in the office and consistently referring to staff collectively “manning the phones” or “manning up” may give the impression that they favour male employees, by attributing the important roles and tasks to male characteristics and impliedly delegitimise women’s roles. It could be argued that this amounts to different treatment based on gender, to the female employees’ detriment.
The risk of gendered language giving rise to bullying claims is also relevant. Due to the demoralising impact it can have, consistent use of gendered language which undermines individuals may constitute unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety in the workplace.
Being the person in the office who uses language which sexualises, infantilises or undermines women is likely to earn you a reputation as out of touch and a bit creepy (among other things). Likewise, consistent use of male-oriented terms can exclude and give the impression of a “boys club” or signify a lack of consideration or respect of the valuable input of women in the workplace.
This can have a significant impact on culture and dynamics between team members. Gendered language erodes respect and can decrease satisfaction levels and morale among women.
To avoid these risks, examine the way you use gendered language. If you are using it in the workplace, just stop. It goes without saying that you should also review your policies regarding sex discrimination, harassment and bullying at work to counter gendered language and counsel and train employees about the impact that gendered language may have.
Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Emma Lutwyche is a Lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note on comments discussion
Thanks everyone for the lively debate in the comments section. The point that women sometimes use inappropriate language in the workplace is well taken, however we disagree with the framing that HRM or AHRI publish articles which suggest “men are to blame for everything”; that we engage in “anti-male propaganda”; or that we’re not bipartisan (we don’t see the issue as men vs women).
There is a larger cultural context around this issue. A woman who calls a colleague “sweetheart” might indeed be patronising, but her words do not reflect a history that treated women as second-class citizens and a present reality where women’s work is less valued than men’s (Australia still has a gender pay gap). Women are far less likely to be leaders – the latest WGEA report shows they make up only 29.7% of key management personnel. Furthermore, as the latest AHRC research has shown, women are far more likely to experience sexual harassment at work.
Some have commented that this article is supporting a PC culture that outlaws harmless language. You referred to the term “manning the phones” as an example of such language. While yes, that can be seen as harmless, in the context of the article it is coming from the mouth of a man who is “known for using “chicks” to refer to the females in the office”. It’s an example of consistent behaviour that could result in a discrimination claim. This is not an article about outlawing language – that it’s been taken that way shows an oversight on our behalf.
Some of you have called for balance on this issue, and that is something we should strive for. It would have been appropriate for us to mention that women can use inappropriate language. But it would be remiss of us to not realise that in terms of balance, gendered language is more likely to negatively impact women than it is men.
Thanks for reading.
Train your team about what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and how to prevent it, with the AHRI elearning modules ‘Sexual harassment prevention’ and ‘Sexual harassment prevention for managers’.