June 5, 2013 3:26 pm

Workplace English as she (or he) is spoke

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Many now opt for the plural pronoun at work, so they can avoid any reference to gender

Asmall group of Financial Times journalists, business people and an academic met recently to discuss the 50 ideas, institutions and innovations that have shaped business today.

I had thought some of the candidate ideas would be contentious: how much, for example, had business schools shaped modern commerce?

I had imagined others would be uncontroversial, such as the transforming effect of women in the workplace. Yet this provoked the longest debate and some anger.

To some of us it seemed obvious. Several developments had encouraged women into paid work: female factory labourers during two world wars; reliable contraception; economic necessity. But it seemed unarguable: workplaces had been transformed by women’s presence.

Some of the judges felt this was giving business too much credit. Where were the women business leaders? Look at the paltry numbers on corporate boards. Yes, women worked. But business went on in its old way, expecting women to adjust rather than the other way around.

You will be able to see how we resolved the debate when the FT magazine on the subject appears next week.

In a Fortune article, Warren Buffett agreed business had fallen short. He wrote: “We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50 per cent of our human capacity. If you visualise what 100 per cent can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”

Mr Buffett mentioned several well-discussed reasons why women have not risen higher, including ingrained male attitudes and women who placed limitations on themselves. He also touched on one that is less discussed, and often regarded as trivial when it is: the language that business uses.

In article two of the US constitution, which deals with the presidency, the references are entirely to “he” and “him”. Mr Buffett writes: “In poker, they call that a ‘tell’.”

Of course, women couldn’t become US president when the constitution was written. Does the use of male pronouns discourage them now that they can? And has the use of similar language in business had the same effect? Is “chair” rather than “chairman” a piece of silliness, or does using it encourage girls to aspire to the top boardroom seat when they grow up?

There is a large body of research suggesting that language has a bigger impact on perceptions than we suppose. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, described an experiment in which two professors gave students a case study about the entrepreneur Heidi Roizen – except that half the students were told she was called Howard Roizen. The students rated Heidi and Howard equal in accomplishment. But the students reading about Howard liked him more. Those with the Heidi case study thought her selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.

An article last year in the journal Sex Roles cited research showing far fewer women applied for a job described in masculine terms than one that was neutral.

English is freer of gender than many languages. With the (diminishing) exception of ships, inanimate objects such as desks and performance appraisals are not masculine or feminine. Also, the third person plural pronoun “they” applies equally to women, men or mixed groups.

For that reason, many now opt for the plural when they talk about people at work, so they can avoid any reference to men or women. “For financial analysts today, Twitter is an essential part of their job” gets around the awkwardness of “his or her job”.

Many have started combining singular subjects with plural pronouns: “Anyone entering management has to be aware of their staff’s family commitments.”

Apart from infuriating the purists, this probably isn’t helping. The Sex Roles article cited a study showing that children of both sexes were far more likely to imagine a female character in a story that used “he or she” than in one using “they”.

Is there another way of combining “he and she”? Internal FT job advertisements opt for “s/he”.

This may seem small compared with harassment or setbacks women encounter while trying to look after children. But it all matters. It would be good to think that, a decade from now, a discussion on how women had shaped business would be less acrimonious.

michael.skapinker@ft.com

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