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When Office Language Takes a Bad Turn

Q, I joined my current company about four months ago and I've noticed that many of the older males at all levels of the organization frequently use language that does not put women on an equal playing field. For example, they say "Girls," or they say they are looking for a part-time soccer mom type in need of "mother's hours." Overall, they are not outright sexist, but there are no women in management roles. Can I say something? It's killing me! Is it okay for me to point it out by saying, "Girls? I think you meant to say women," and then move on and hope it sinks in? How have other people handled this type of environment? I just moved here from San Francisco so I'm in a bit of a culture shock.

A. I refuse to blame this behavior and language on Boston. You have landed in an organizational culture that is not as advanced as those in your previous organizations. The language being used does convey sexism, whether overt, conscious, or unclear on the concept, it represents sexism on the job and it is bad for women and bad for business.

There are many ways to handle the situation without putting your job at risk, or earning a label that may hurt your chance for success. You didn’t mention your level within the organization; this will impact how any action you take, or comments you make are taken. Hopefully the more senior you are, the less you risk by correcting offensive language.

As there are no women in management, you need to look for support among peers and male senior organizational leaders. Develop an understanding of the organization and where among the senior managers and human resources you might find support and a willingness to address the language issues and the outdated attitudes represented by these phrases. Find the senior leaders with working wives and working age daughters.

Discover if any of these issues have been addressed, and what the outcomes were. Many people try to educate just by correcting the terminology as you suggested, girls– women, but it is often not well received. You may find that through new alliances of like minded people you can gain support to inform the firm that this language and attitude is bad for business. This behavior reflects poorly on the company to employees, customers and vendors. Some private conversations need to take place with the more senior men and proactive use of respectful language needs to occur.

Many people change behaviors, if not attitudes, when presented with a negative financial impact on the business. If HR or managers have data that shows turnover among female staff is higher than any other and is a significant cost to the organization, or women customers are not developed or retained resulting in lost revenue, the cause will get the right attention.

If you can’t get support, you can try a few private conversations. If that doesn’t work, feel free to speak up. Some comments might put your job at risk immediately and others offer a longer term view on making change though the pace may be infuriating. You may not be there long, and that will be their loss.

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