This week the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) launched a campaign entitled Words at Work, highlighting the potentially damaging impact of language at work in preventing inclusion. Their Chair and our Australian of the Year, David Morrison, was the face of the campaign which featured this 2 minute video:

It left a bit to be desired in terms of acting and tried to keep things light-hearted by making a few kind of silly jokes, but ultimately pointed out a number of words and phrases used relatively innocuously at work that can consciously or unconsciously, serve to exclude others. The terms the campaign video specifically called out included, ‘girls’, ‘feisty, ‘bossy’, ‘ball breaker’, ‘gay’, ‘abbo’, ‘retard’, ‘poofter’ and ‘dyke’. These terms do not promote inclusivity. Point well made, DCA.

Morrison got up bright and early to appear on the ABC in relation to the launch of the campaign. During his interview he made reference to the use of the term ‘guys’ – which didn’t appear in DCA’s video but did in their supporting guide – as one of the words we’d benefit from expelling from our workplace vocabulary when referring to a group including females.

At this point, the campaign stopped being about the use of exclusive language at work and started being about the use of ‘guys’. News outlets across Australia and the world (I read a NY Times article on the topic!) brandished headlines reading “Australian of the Year/Former Chief of Army wants people to stop using the term ‘guys'”. Predictably, many had an opinion and jumped on the bandwagon:

Words at Work - Guys

A teeny tiny but reflective sample of the feedback on David Morrison’s: Words at Work launch interview.

Language experts were cited as saying Morrison was wrong and the term was gender neutral. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon rebutting his point, proclaiming they’ll keep using gendered terms and cautioning anyone trying to curb freedom of speech. (!?)

I am not going to take issue with use the term guys, I accept that in many contexts it’s used as a gender neutral term, including by me. (I might however argue that it didn’t necessarily start out that way, and perhaps as a society we became used to women being referred to as ‘guys’ and at some point it became so normalised that we no longer took issue with it…) But I am going to take issue with this being ‘political correctness gone mad’, an assault on freedom of speech and the many comments I read that suggested we have bigger things to worry about in relation to equality.

So regularly we are presented with information that declares the perversity of inequality paired with observations and exasperations on the lack of progress being made. Corporates, community groups and governments resolve to address the problem and throw money at interventions and research. That research has taught us to understand unconscious bias. Research has taught us about the power of inclusion… and exclusion. Research has taught us about the many problematic manifestations of stereotypes. And as DCA quite clearly articulated within the first 45 seconds of the video, research has taught us about the impact of words, “how language cuts people out, or cuts them down.” Above all, the research has taught us that inequality is not eliminated with any ‘silver bullet’ because it is reinforced, consciously and unconsciously, in so many aspects of our lives. It is deeply engrained in how we live.

It is entirely counterproductive to aspire to foster diversity, inclusion and equality and yet reject what the research tells us is holding us back. The reality is that creating more equal workplaces and communities will involve some uncomfortable reflections about how we’ve been operating. We will need to address some of the unintentional ways we have been excluding and marginalising people. And perhaps most obviously, we will need to adjust our behaviours in order to create the change to which we’re aspiring.

David Morrison missed the mark this week, but lets not miss the point. There is great power in words to enable or inhibit inclusion and it serves us all to choose them carefully.