Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist

A friend of mine posted this on Twitter:

I really respect the amount of self-awareness it takes to ask that question! It’s easy to disavow the trolls sending rape and death threats, but it takes much more courage to acknowledge that you might be perpetuating harmful attitudes in less-obvious ways.

[Author’s Note: I felt like it was important to establish some context, but you can also skip the 101-level discussion and jump right to the list.]

This question hints at two important concepts: implicit biases and microaggressions.

We have all internalized harmful stereotypes about women — it’s part of growing up in a culture that inculcates gender roles from a very early age. Our culture has deeply-embedded patriarchal power structures (ditto racist and classist and ableist and transphobic and homophobic and so on…) that we all absorb and have to intentionally question and deprogram. We all, regardless of our background or our conscious beliefs, have implicit biases that affect the way we see the world.

Groups that are dominated by one sort of person tend to develop ways of talking and thinking that implicitly center the identities and experiences of that one sort of person, which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, because it communicates to outsiders that they are different (at best; unwelcome interlopers or second-class citizens, at worst). It can introduce, or exacerbate, the further self-fulfilling prophecies of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat. It can put pressure on people to conform to a certain type in order to succeed.

This context is the heart of why inclusive language matters, why a seemingly-harmless joke isn’t that harmless, and why small things seem to sometimes get blown out of proportion.

Which brings us to microaggressions: “social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.”

These are little things. Things that many people do without thinking about them and certainly without intending anything by them. Things that individually are meaningless, but in aggregate set the tone of an entire community.

Little things reinforce stereotypes and implicit biases instead of challenging them. They insulate members of the dominant group from having to confront their own biases. They communicate underlying attitudes and community norms. Language may or may not shape the way we think, but it is a powerful signal about what sort of behavior is and is not acceptable, and what your personal expectations are.

Worse, those little things can subtly reinforce the attitudes of actual abusers and signal that they are welcome in our community. (Example: rape jokes are seen as tacit nods of approval by actual rapists.)

Communication is tricky even on the best of days; the best defense against misunderstandings is to develop a finely-tuned sense of empathy, and try to notice as much as possible what we’re doing that might create distance from someone else and keep us from questioning our own assumptions about the world.

Sometimes it’s hard to see these things without getting defensive, or going too far down the road of guilt and excessive self-flagellation. I think it’s important to realize that every single one of us makes this kind of mistake, no one is immune. The determination of character, in my opinion, isn’t whether you slip up, but what you do about it afterward.

If you care about others, nothing feels worse than realizing you accidentally stepped on someone else’s foot. I really think it’s a natural reaction to bristle a bit, to try to minimize it, to protect ourselves from feeling bad. Once I recognized that defensiveness as a natural part of the process, it was much easier for me to realize I was doing it, then apologize and move on instead of digging myself deeper. It takes practice.

The good news, though, is that little things are easy to change. Personally I believe that if you can change the outward tone of a culture, you stand a good chance of changing the actual beliefs and attitudes of that culture.

Caveats: not everyone notices or cares about every single thing on this list, and I’ve probably missed some that my own privilege blinds me to. This is a list specifically focused on sexist microaggressions; while some of the things on this list might also apply to, for instance, transfolk or non-binary folks or people of color, I can’t claim to speak for anyone other than myself.

The post is written as “things men do”, because that’s the question that was asked, but of course anyone can (and does) perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Finally, this list is written for those who, like me, try to err on the side of being maximally-inclusive. Many of these things are common in our culture, and while I try to model good behavior, I don’t correct others’ usage unless they ask. I consider this an application of the robustness principle.

So, without further ado.

1. Using “guys” to mean “people”.

I fear I’m earning a bit of a reputation for this one among my colleagues, as I sometimes good-naturedly respond to “Hey guys, ?” with “I’m not a guy, but ”. Yes, most people intend this in a gender-neutral way; no, it is not actually gender-neutral. If you think about it, “guys” is only gender-neutral in a situation where maleness is the assumed default.

Many women don’t notice or mind this, but to some in our male-dominated field it can be a tiny, pointed reminder of the extra work they have to do just to fit in, be seen, be taken seriously.

Personally, it can also make me wonder if I’m being seen at all; I often read a message to a mailing list, or in a chat room, that begins “hey guys” and wonder whether the speaker realizes that not everyone on the list is a man. Worse, I worry it sends the wrong message to other women who might observe the exchange. For instance, if a woman was thinking of getting involved in WordPress development, could all the “guys” messages on the wp-hackers list make her think there aren’t any women in that community?

Don’t do the “guys and girls” thing either, which is marginally better but still makes it feel like an afterthought. Try: “folks”, “y’all”, “everyone”, “team”, “channel”, or just “awesome people”. :) If my own experience is any indication, it’ll sound weird for a month or two and then become normal.

Relatedly, avoid assuming male users in your documentation. Just stop worrying and embrace the singular “they”.

2. Similarly: “girls” for “women”.

Yes, I know it’s the best we have as an informal analogue to “guys”, but it infantilizes women and sounds patronizing. It might subconsciously encourage us to take women less seriously. In general, “girl” should be used to refer to female children only. Like “guys”, this will sound weird for about a month and will then become normal.

Some folks are reclaiming “lady” for informal usage, but I’ve found that can be a bit loaded (personally, I don’t think of myself as a lady; when I was a child, my grandfather would reprimand me for wearing jeans or climbing trees, because those things were “unladylike”). YMMV, but for people you don’t know well, I would stick to “women”.

3. “Mom” as an example of a non-technical user.

I know: your mom, like a lot of people, may not be very good with computers. (My mom, on the other hand, while she doesn’t really give herself credit for it, is quite good at figuring computer stuff out. She programmed with punchcards in college and can do things with Excel that I have no idea how to do. It’s my dad who always needs computer help.)

This tired old trope erases the vast number of computer-literate women who happen to be mothers, as well as encouraging condescension. Again, the context here is a society and a professional field where women already struggle to be taken seriously; no need to pile on.

This trope has its own article on the Geek Feminism Wiki, which suggests alternatives: “When the purpose of the statement is to convey the idea that something is “really simple”, ideal nouns will refer to non-human or purely technical categories, such as cat, non-technical user, Ubuntu user, or “newbie.””

4. Using avatars that are male by default.

If the default (or unset) avatar on your site reads as male, you’re making an implicit statement that your “normal” user is male and anyone else is an exception. Personally, I think using a non-gendered (even non-human) avatar can really showcase an app’s creativity.

5. Describing software or algorithms as “sexy”, “hot”, etc.

By sexualizing something that does not need to be sexualized, you’re creating a college-frat-boy type environment, as well as implicitly conflating quality with sexual attractiveness. If I work with you, I want to know that you’re enough of an adult to be able to appreciate something (or someone) without wanting to fornicate with it.

Anyhow, it’s vague. What is so great about it? Is it really efficient, does it solve a problem in a new way, does it scale really well, does it have a great UI?

Related: Referring to hardware (or cars, or whatever) by female names or pronouns. Yeah, okay, grand naval tradition and all that, but it’s still kind of weird. Can you not tell the difference between women and objects?

6. Assuming women they meet are in non-technical roles.

If you meet a woman in a professional setting, like a conference (or the afterparty!), your first assumption should be that she’s there because she’s interested in the material. This seems obvious, but most women have had the unfortunate experience of being assumed to be “the marketing chick” or there with a boyfriend.

Under no circumstances should you ask a woman to prove her technical knowledge to you (even in jest).

Additionally, there’s a lot of implicit misogyny when you feign surprise upon discovering that a conventionally-attractive or feminine-presenting woman is also a geek. If you tell a woman approvingly that she’s “one of the guys” or “not like other women”, well, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’ve got some assumptions you need to rethink. (And I’m saying that as a woman who was proud to be called both of those things at one point.)

So, don’t say something like “Wow, I would never guessed you were a nerd!” Technical women often have to walk a fine line between looking properly “nerdy” (at the risk of coming across as sloppy) and looking put-together (but risking being taken less seriously).

7. Fetishizing “hot geek girls”.

It’s not a compliment to get comments like “Wow, a beautiful woman who’s also into kernel hacking?? Will you marry me?”

Rule of thumb: Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a man! It’s disrespectful to focus on someone’s appearance instead of their accomplishments.

The “fake marriage proposal” is extra weird because it’s grounded in a measure of success predicated on one’s desirability as a sexual or romantic partner. Women are people in their own right and have value independent of their relationships to men. A radical idea, I know.

An unsolicited “I find you attractive!” remark isn’t a compliment, it’s a note from a boner. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of women in technical careers didn’t get into them in order to serve as eye candy or find a date.

We don’t want to be singled out and given extra attention because “ooooh, a woman!”. Yes, being a woman in tech has its unique challenges, but no one wants to feel like they’re only getting attention because of their gender. We want to be treated normally, like human beings who happen to share some perfectly ordinary and normal interests with you.

8. Denigrating things by comparing them to women or femininity.

Don’t casually accuse someone of being “girly” or a “pussy”, or say that they “fight like a girl”, or make fun of them for liking “chick flicks”. Stop policing masculinity with comments about men who cross the line into “too feminine”.

Be on guard for unnecessarily-gendered terms (hysterical, shrill, “man up”, “grow a pair”, ballsy). Notice how those examples are all predicated on the assumption that acting like a man is inherently good, and acting like a woman is inherently bad?

Those are some of the most overt ones, but this kind of thing is weirdly common. I recently called out a cyclist friend for referring to the lowest gear as the “granny gear”.

9. Stereotyping women’s needs… or ignoring them.

Emery boards as conference swag? Really? Protip: Women use battery packs and stickers too.

Conversely, many apps just outright ignore features that disproportionately affect female users (like the conspicuous absence of period tracking functionality in the Apple’s new Health app). The whole issue of swag t-shirts is a big one in this category.

Which brings us neatly to…

10. Using dark UI patterns.

If you write software that enables harassment and stalking, or makes it difficult for users to protect their personal information, you’re disproportionately driving women off of your platform or making them do extra work. Respecting user’s privacy and emphasizing consent in software design is fundamentally an issue of equality — not just gender, but across the board.

Watch out for requirements, such as “real name” policies, that unfairly impact marginalized groups. Commit to writing software that embodies affirmative consent.

11. Repeating generalizations about gender essentialism.

“Women just aren’t interested in programming/math/logic.” This is a thing that people really think, and say out loud. Statistically, the variation between individuals dwarfs any biological differences, and perpetuating these stereotypes has a real, harmful effect.

Even complimentary stereotypes, like “women are better at communicating” or “women have a better eye for design” contribute to the problem by encouraging a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” approach to gender. This is also known as benevolent sexism.

Similarly, don’t reduce the gender gap in tech to a problem of “getting more women into the pipeline”. The reality is that women leave the industry at every stage of their careers. Solving the pipeline problem is necessary, but not a magic bullet.

On the flip side, don’t excuse bad behavior with “boys will be boys” type excuses. Dismantling gender stereotypes is also about having more respect for men — believing they are just as capable of empathy and self-restraint as any other adult human being.

12. Assuming every woman in tech feels the same way and/or wants to discuss her experiences “as a woman in tech”.

We’re not a monolith, we can’t all speak for each other, and we often want to just talk about our work instead of being seen as women first. See the Ada Initiative’s great post, Breaking The Unicorn Law.

13. Staying quiet when other men do these things.

Finally: this is everybody’s work. It’s not just the responsibility of those affected to speak up — we all play a part in setting the standards for the communities we’re a part of. Leigh Honeywell has a great post about how each of us can help, in the infosec world or anywhere else:

We aren’t doomed to being the harassment and sexual assault capital of the tech world. We can make a difference. And it starts with each one of us standing up for what we think is right, in the moment when it happens.

The concept of “privilege” seems to often come across as an insult, but I think it’s also a statement that you have power in a particular situation, and it’s possible to use that power for good. Those with more privilege have the power to amplify the voices of others, to challenge the status quo without fearing the consequences of speaking up.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. These things serve as a starting point, an MVP, if you will. It’s certainly possible to do more, if you’re willing to devote the time and energy, but these suggestions are the “low-hanging fruit”: small, simple changes that will build the foundation for a better tech culture.

Other great posts along these lines:

Thoughts? Please comment or tweet at me! You can also check out my saved links on Pinboard (basically a firehose of everything I read online).

184 thoughts on “Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist

  1. This is a great list, though I stridently disagree on the issue of “guys”. Guys does not inherently mean men. In its original context, the word “guy” meant “guide” or “local”. It’s the person who knows the area and can help you out. The fact that it became exclusively male is sexist in and of itself and perpetuating that gathered and unnecessary connotation merely reinforces that sexism. There is definitely a generational and regional gap in how gendered the term “guys” is, but, as a female language nerd, I would much rather reclaim the word than be told I need to feel excluded by it. I don’t. I grew up using it as a gender neutral term and will continue to use it as such.

    Liked by 8 people

    • Thanks! Interesting point about the history of the term, I didn’t know that. It makes the alternate spelling of “guise” seem even more apropos, somehow.

      As I said in the post, not everyone has the same connotations, and I certainly am not telling anyone they need to feel excluded by it! It’s just about being aware that it might not always be heard the way you mean it.

      You’re welcome to try to reclaim it, though unfortunately I suspect the gendered association is pretty permanently entrenched at this point. Of course that leads us down the path of prescriptivism/descriptivism and so on. :)

      I’m curious, though… do you also use/hear it as gender neutral in the singular? e.g. “We’re looking to hire a Python guy”? Would you say something like “She’s basically a systems guy”?

      Liked by 4 people

      • I grew up with the term used as a gender neutral one, unless in the sense of “guys and dolls”, which was obviously antiquated to me and so the gendered association seemed similarly irrelevant in a modern context (and in its original meaning, it turns out). I know older women were sometimes thrown by it, but among my peers it defaulted to gender neutral and we were as thrown by older people balking at it as they were by our widespread usage of it, not only in mixed company but often in all-female contexts. My female friends and I used it daily to refer to our female friends in the plural. Like I said, there is a large regional component as well as an age gap in this usage. In New England the term is often used as the plural second person pronoun; “you guys” being the closest Northeastern equivalent of “you all”, “y’all”, or “youz” (sp?), serving the function of specifying that you are speaking to more than one person. However, “some guy” would not default to male to me anymore than we default people, dogs, etc to male already (and thus, should similarly reject). While I understand that some may not take it this way or have feelings attached to it that differ from mine, such is the case of many terms that vary by region and age group or have taken on more than one meaning. For me and those I grew up with the term is already reclaimed. For areas where it has not reverted to a genderless meaning, many English words that started far more gender specific have since broadened their meaning (author, actor, waitor, dude, etc). I am confident “guy” can do the same, particularly if we don’t insist on reentrenching a gendered meaning it didn’t originally have and does not need to (and often does not) carry. Same goes for other gender miscontrued words such as witch, nurse, etc. If someone asks me not to use it when referring to them, I will, of course, oblige, but otherwise I will continue to do so. As a New Englander; a child of the 90s; and a lover of language, words, and their history, it honestly annoys me when people insist “guy” carries a meaning that is not universal or necessarily correct. (Again, like many terms, but I’ll leave those for another etymology rant).

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s fascinating to me, because I also grew up with gender-neutral “you guys”, yet “some guy” would very definitely surprise me if the “guy” in question turned out to be a woman.

        I love words, too, but eventually decided that meant I could find more precise ones in situations where there might be some confusion (as you said, the age and regional background make a difference). But again, the “can we reclaim this word?” question is a complicated one, and I think there’s a valid argument to be made on both sides. Though I do think if you’re going to be consistent about it, you do have to also use the singular form to refer to folks of any gender… as I’ve occasionally heard successfully done with “dude”. :)

        I think the context makes a difference, too — if you’re addressing an all-female or mixed group, in person, it’s less likely that you just didn’t realize they’re not all men, if that makes sense. I definitely notice that feeling of “Do they see me here?” more on, say, mailing lists or IRC channels than in person.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Given that I am female, it would throw me if someone interpretted my at worst regional dialectal term as an assumption that there are no women present. If I’m there, there is always at least one female present. Though, I suppose they could think my name is gender neutral. That has happened maybe once though, as Shannon is assumed female in America (a pet peeve for the few male Shannons I have known). The term never would have made me feel unwelcome though, and I very frequently feel unwelcome in many groups do to (unintentionally) exclusive language, be it in regards to gender, religion (oh gods, so many fish to fry there), political affiliations, socio-cultural background, et al. I suppose “you guys” is just so commonplace to me that the gendered connotation seems like the imprecise and unclear one and, as a person of many misconstrued labels, I have often had to fight against incorrect or varied connotations and meaning for much more loaded language (studying anthropology turns the world into a bleak hellscape of wrongly used terms, but I digress). Some guy addressing an e-mail “you guys” seems like an inconsequential and easily cleared up issue in the admittedly highly toxic, exclusionary, and insular environment of tech. As an aside, I have a cousin who works at Apple who is a conventionally attractive girl. Her first few months there, none of the customers approached her. Once she started dressing down in “geekier” clothing sans make-up, she had an immediate turn-around and is frequently the top salesperson in her branch. I guess we females have to be below a certain level of attractiveness to know how iPads work. >.<


      • Also, an interesting tidbit, given the other comment on here about “guys and gals” and your suggestion of “y’all” as an alternative: I grew up in NE, but my family is not from here, so I used various regional terms growing up that I did not always know were regional. Throughout my life, the terms “gal” and “y’all” have frequently elicited ire, confusion, or blank stares from my New England peers, while the first I’ve heard of an issue with “guys” (other than befuddled older people who are frequently thrown by language changes as it is) was earlier this year. I suppose one person’s agreeable and innocuous alternative is another person’s scarlet letter of Otherness and one person’s modern gender neutral pronoun or Middle English guideperson is another person’s slight.


      • Do you have an issue with the word “mankind”? It’s the same concept. Inherently we should know that it includes both genders. I think that one was way too nitpicky and yes, way too PC.

        Most of the other points raised I agree with though.


      • Right, once you start looking at words that have gendered origins, it’s kind of a rabbit-hole! “Mankind” (and similar words) have less of a gendered association for most people, I would guess. The thing about “guys” is that, while plenty of people use it as gender-neutral in the aggregate, few perceive it as such in the singular (e.g. “She’s a great guy” would sound strange to most). Julia Evans’ survey about usage was pretty eye-opening for me: http://jvns.ca/blog/2013/12/27/guys-guys-guys/

        Important moderation note: This is the only time I am going to approve a comment that mentions “PC” or “political correctness”. What you call “political correctness” I call “treating other people with respect“.

        Here’s a link that explains why denigrating something as “too PC” is likely to make many people immediately write you off: The Greatest Cliché: The Unexamined Propaganda of “Political Correctness”. This concept also has a page on the Geek Feminism Wiki.


    • Fantastic points in the blog post Kat.Thank you for writing and sharing. Thoughtful and helpful.

      By the way, I agree with the point Shannon makes about ‘guys’ in comments and it is rather wonderful to see such a fantastically civilised discourse in some blog comments for once in a while! Yay anthropologists.

      ‘Guys’ does seem to mean some fairly nuanced things and there are regional and generational differences.

      ‘You have to be a guy to do that’ means something very different to me than ‘She’s my go to guy for X’.

      My daughter uses is when talking with a group of her friends – whether there are boys & girls equally, just her and other boys or just girls. She is 10 but pretty sure of herself and is very aware of some of the issues around gender stereotyping. She also loves words. She does say, “She’s my go-to guy for X”, “He’s my go-to guy for Y”, so maybe this is changing too.

      I hope that we can all become more sensitive to, and call out, some of the crasser uses of all sorts of terms whilst still appreciating the beauty and subtlety of language.


      • I’m glad you found it to be such, Mark. It actually sparked a separate conversation I had last night with a friend of mine who studied linguistics. He was of the mind that the word has become pretty genderless in most contexts but that things like “you guys”, “y’all”, and “you folks” would all be too colloquial for business correspondence or in a professional setting. But that may also be a generational gap issue, I suppose.


      • She does say, “She’s my go-to guy for X”, “He’s my go-to guy for Y”, so maybe this is changing too.

        That’s really cool!

        I do love language, and I think the way it changes over time is incredible. The fact that there is so much subtlety is exactly the point — it’s all about recognizing the nuance in certain words or phrases so that you can say exactly what you mean. I think in some ways this post is a product of my own obsession with finding the most precise, evocative word for every situation. :)


    • Being a non-English native but having watched quite a few English-language movies and tv shows, I’ve noticed definitely more than once a scene in which a teen girl addresses her teen-girl-friends as “guys”, I’m sorry not to remember the titles, but they were rather some mainstream productions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is my understanding that “guy” comes from the Middle English or perhaps Old English for “guide” or “local”, which would pre-date Guy Fawkes considerably. I would assume the modern English word “guide” would share the same roots, but I don’t know that for sure.


  2. Sorry but the guys and gals stuff is generally referred to as “making mountains out of molehills”, i.e. creating a problem for the sake of creating a problem. If you are going to find sexist insults in innocent conversation, people will just avoid talking to you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hmm… hasn’t happened yet. :)

      Seriously though, there’s a world of difference between “Hey, let’s talk about how some of the words we use can have unintended connotations” and emptying my wine glass into people’s faces or something. If you follow some of the links in the post, you’ll see that there’s a lot of science about this. It’s not “small stuff that we should therefore dismiss”, it’s “small stuff that affects our thought patterns about the big stuff and sets the tone for our entire community”. Good things to Google: “implicit bias”, “microaggression theory”, “stereotype threat”, “benevolent sexism”.

      It certainly seems like something about this post put you on the defensive. Do you know what it was? That can be a cool moment if you allow it to lead you to some honest self-examination.

      Liked by 8 people

      • “(Example: rape jokes are seen as tacit nods of approval by actual rapists.”

        Who the heck makes “rape jokes”?

        Certainly not us evil old stuffed shirt patriarchs, who won’t engage in *any* kind of sex talk in public (and who liked to hang people for committing actual rape, BTW).


      • I have to agree with this and having racked my ageing brain I can’t remember having heard a “rape joke” But maybe its an American thing?


  3. After reading through the list, I agree with or at least can empathize with every point save one… Number 5. In general quality and sexual attractiveness do go hand in hand. That’s why most people aren’t attracted to serial killers, and others perceived to have negative qualities. The entire purpose of sexual attractiveness is to give you a biological response to a “quality” mate. I do admit that it is entirely subjective though.

    More importantly to be able to appreciate the beauty, and/or attractiveness in things is a thing of wonder. We would have many less engineers if they weren’t attracted to the beauty of their profession. Same thing goes for coders, mathematicians, physicist, etc. I also think it’s wrong to passively imply that woman can’t, won’t, or don’t find elegant code attractive. I couldn’t imagine the programmer who doesn’t. Elegant code makes your life better, everyone can appreciate that. Excuse my substitution of code for the generalized thing it could be, I’m showing my bias.

    And on the more minor note of giving hardware feminine names, I also feel their is nothing wrong with that. I served on the army for 8 years and for the most part did not name my equipment, but I have met both men and woman who named their’s. I’ve seen equipment named Frank and Francine. If it’s your equipment name it how you want.


    • That’s why most people aren’t attracted to serial killers, and others perceived to have negative qualities.

      I’m not sure I follow this. I think people seem to find serial killers inordinately fascinating, e.g. Charles Manson had groupies. There’s a Wikipedia page about the phenomenon… check out the examples. Wikipedia: Hybristophilia.

      More importantly to be able to appreciate the beauty, and/or attractiveness in things is a thing of wonder. We would have many less engineers if they weren’t attracted to the beauty of their profession.

      I’m definitely in agreement with you on this. I don’t see anything wrong with describing code as “beautiful” or “elegant” (though maybe we should throw “handsome” in there, too?). I was more thinking about the sort of conversations where people say “so-and-so has a real hard-on for MongoDB”, in other words, more directly bringing sex into the equation. All I’m saying is, at work, let’s be adults and not talk about penises.

      “Sexy” may have been a bad example, since some people interpret it as the former, while others hear it more as the latter. Or maybe that makes it a good example. :P

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s definitely a distinction between being attractive and being sexy. The Grand Canyon attracts lots of people every year, but you’d be hard pressed to find those people calling it sexy. The same goes with code. Elegant, beautiful, attractive code exists, but no code or programming technology should be thought of as ‘sexy’, since there’s never really a way to use code sexually. If you don’t use it in the bedroom, it’s not sexy. So yeah, those who equate ‘sexy’ with ‘elegant’ or ‘really likes’ definitely are applying too simplistic a worldview on their usage of adjectives.


  4. Great article, I completely agree and as a man in tech am certainly guilty of many of these. HOWEVER. My Mother IS the most non-technical person I or any one else has ever met.

    There is no credit to give, there is none due. I spent an HOUR on the phone with her, her swearing up and down there was no save button on the screen. I finally was able to remote in, and I’ll let you guess what button was in the dead center of her screen… So I’m keeping that one.

    P.S. when you said “Dark UI Patterns” I thought you meant like dark color theme in our IDEs, and I was going to fight you on that one. Dark theme is clearly better.


  5. Great article, but I think 5 and 10 are a bit misplaced here. I (a female developer) am quite alright with describing an algorithm as sexy. I can see why one might find it unprofessional (even if I don’t agree), but it certainly isn’t sexist, as sexual feelings belong to women as well! User privacy is important, but it is hardly an issue that’s particular to women.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Japh and commented:
    If you’re a person in tech, please have a read of this.

    Before you do, there’s something I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind:

    If you find yourself thinking “that point is a little over-sensitive”, remember the context. If gender equality were not an issue, you might be right. But it is, and so we have to be a little more sensitive than we might otherwise be in a perfect world. It’s part of being generally more aware of the issue, so we can make things right.

    As an example, in this post Kat says at one point:

    > Rule of thumb: Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a man! It’s disrespectful to focus on someone’s appearance instead of their accomplishments.

    If your immediate response is, “but I would say that to a man so there’s no problem,” you’re missing the context. (Also, perhaps you shouldn’t say it to a man either?!)

    Thanks for reading!


    • I am really enjoying this conversation line and really like how respectful the posts have been – people actually trying to listen and to learn and change behaviours that may offend others.

      So on that note I thought I would add a comment about the use of “Rule of Thumb” as it is a term I get to hear a lot of in my technical field and it offends me far more than some, and I find it a bit ironic to see it used in a discussion surrounding unintentionally sexist language.

      “In her debunking of the connection of wife-beating to the phrase “rule of thumb,” writer Rosalie Maggio suggests that people avoid the phrase anyway. Whether it was originally intended to refer to wife-beating, it has become associated with wife-beating over more than a century, and is undoubtedly likely to distract many a reader from your main point if you use the phrase. Certainly if the phrase is used in the context of feminism, women’s lives or domestic violence, it would be in poor taste to use it. If it’s used in other fields — especially the context of art, or brewing, or money-changing where it was used long before the association with wife-beating was made? Perhaps there are better ways to work against violence than pursuing a false etymology.”

      For me, this is a great example of how a phrase/words can be used quite innocently, but still affect your audience negatively. Also, an example of how once you understand why it upsets people (if you are empathetic) it is usually easy to change your language.

      Thanks for helping to educate all of us on this very interesting topic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, I had never heard of that connection before, thanks so much for pointing it out. You can bet I’ll avoid that one in the future!

        That is indeed an excellent illustration of how language can carry unintended meanings, and how we’re all complicit in perpetuating them, so I suppose I won’t edit it out of the post. :)

        Can you suggest a good alternative? The best I can come up with right now is like… “general rule” but that sounds a bit formal.


      • I (non-Native English speaker, btw) have first learned about the “rule of thumb” in my mechanics class, when discussing the axis orientation, and later, when learning to determine the direction of magnetic field. So to me, it will always remain connected to the mathematical rule for cross products. I guess that is why it is used a lot in technical fields. I see how it can be (for some people) connected to wife-beating, but I think that in view of the probable origin of the popularity of the term in tech-talk, taking offence in its use and avoiding the term is a bit far-stretched.


      • It’s interesting because the wife-beating thing appears to be a totally false etymology which has nonetheless attached itself to the phrase. So, keep using it because its origins are fine? Or avoid it because it will (albeit incorrectly) still remind some people of domestic violence? I think my preference is that I probably don’t want my readers thinking about domestic violence (unless that’s what I’m writing about, of course), just because it could be distracting…


      • I think in this case the numbers of people who associate the phrase with domestic violence are small enough to be ignored. It may safely be assumed that somewhere, someone is going to be offended by ANY expression you will use. So then what – stop using language all together? I don’t think there are real benefits in avoiding relatively innocent expressions.


  7. Fascinating and helpful, thanks. I’d be interested to know how much variance there is regarding acceptable terms. For instance, as a mixed race person I have no trouble with the term coloured (though sometimes I think I should). However, a South African friend finds that term really offensive, as for her it was part of the language of Apartheid.


    • It’s definitely very reliant on people’s cultural backgrounds, age, where they grew up, etc. One of the fascinating things about English is that there are so many dialects, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. The connotations of words shift around over time, and differ from person to person. I think the comments definitely show that not everyone agrees with every single thing on the list. :)


    • An excellent insight. As a writer of sorts, it also fascinating to me what words are taboo in different places. I find that slang, in particular, can be pretty hard to pin down and things that sound so vulgar to me can often have innocuous meanings. Like “all mouth and no trousers” apparently just means someone is boasting – and not what I thought it meant.


  8. For all us men, consider this: In our generation at least “guys” has been used to refer to males. I personally use it as “people”, but there is still a strong male context to it. Now imagine you are talking with 3 women at a conference. A fourth women comes by and asks: “What do you think of the latest WordPress version girls?”. Wouldn’t it be strange as a guy? I personally wouldn’t take offence at it but I would definitely start my sentence with “I’m not a girl but…” as well.

    That being said, I personally feel that guys is perfectly acceptable. The problem is that people who are genuinely not sexist and people who genuinely are could use it for very different reasons. For a genuinely non sexist person like me, having to be careful about this stuff is a burden.

    However, until the gender gap is closed, it is a burden we should bear. In an ideal World the use of an innocent word like “guys” would be no problem. If we try to be a bit more careful and really treat women equally we may once be able to use the word guys without a problem :)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with almost all points made, and I have to say I fall into some of these traps sometimes as well. Especially assuming woman not to be in technical roles. I understand why I do it, 95% of the women I work with do not work in technical roles, even though I work at tech companies. But it still is dismissive from me to automatically assume that a women does not perform a tech role. So, agreement so far!

    However, I genuinely do not understand why calling a piece of software/hardware ‘sexy’ is sexist.

    I do not believe it perpetuates a frat-boy environment. As this assumes that only frat boys can find, something sexy, or only for frat boys it is normal to say something is sexy. By associating all kinds of ‘finding stuff sexy’ to man we prohibit women from freely describing their sexuality and what they find sexy, perpetuating “it’s not proper for women to talk like that” vs “boys will be boys”.

    I do get the argument of implicitly conflating quality with sexual attractiveness, but of course that is not a gendered issue.

    As it for being vague, well that’s not really an argument. “That’s a good algorithm” or “That’s a sexy algorithm” are both equally vague.

    For the record, the third definition in the dictionary ( http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sexy) for sexy is:

    “excitingly appealing; glamorous”

    Now I understand this a long comment filled with critique, so I would like to point out again that I agree with 14 out of 15 points made, and that I understand that I fall into these pitfalls sometimes myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it depends a lot on the context, and yeah, of course it’s something folks of any gender do (as is everything on the list, really). You make a very a good point about telling women it’s inappropriate to talk like that — there’s definitely a lot of cultural baggage where men are lauded for their sexuality whereas women are shamed for theirs.

      That being said, in a professional context, it still might be better to err on the side of caution. There are valid reasons that someone (even a sex-positive someone!) could feel uncomfortable with talk of sex in the workplace… and while, sure, simply using the word “sexy” isn’t the same as asking about someone’s sex life, I have definitely heard conversations that take the metaphor a bit too far.


      • You make a good point about erring on the side of caution. “Sexy” might indeed not be the best way to describe stuff while at work.


    • The phrase I use a lot is “it’s never ‘bring your dick to work’ day”; there are plenty of compliments that don’t sexualise the everyday working environment. Sexy is awesome, when it’s about things that are literally erotic and arousing; when it gets used for work things, you’re just an innuendo away from ‘I’d fork that’ comments…


  10. Reading this has made me realise, with a healthy dose of embarrassment, that I’ve been known to describe difficult technical problems as “ballaches” to all and sundry. I can now see the implied although unintended assumptions of using this phrase and shall be altering my language accordingly in the future.


  11. Great practical article, specially the documentation part and “hey guys”. I’ll make sure me and the company I work for adhere to these rules.


  12. Damnit. I’m guilty of almost half this list :/

    Very happy for this to be spelled out, it’s amazing how much unintentional stuff goes on. Need to sort my shit out and starting following these tips.


  13. Thanks for this post, it really helps.

    It is especially helpful in my case because since English is a second language to me, I often miss on the subtleties and baggage associated with words. For example, I was under the impression that “guys” was gender neutral because I’ve often saw it used as such (probably most by other men, I suppose.)

    Similarly with the use of “girls”. I was somewhat surprised by your suggestion of using “women” instead. It’s probably a sign of sexism entrenched in my understanding of English but saying “you women” instead of “you girls” sounds more demeaning for some reason. I need to work on that.

    But the biggest surprise to me was “hysterical” and “shrill.” I would never have thought!

    Thanks for this post. Really helpful :)


    • Indeed, this stuff takes on a whole new level of complication when you’re not a native speaker! I know some languages have a lot more gendered stuff built-in than English does, too. Just whatever you do, don’t say “females”, since that makes you sound like a Ferengi. :)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. “The good news, though, is that little things are easy to change”

    No. That’s just gimmicky feel-good bullshit. You just laid out your argument is that all men are constantly inculcated and suffused in a pernicious bath of patriarchy from the moment they are born. By your reasoning this socialization has resulted in a fundamentally warped perception of the universe which makes the patriarchal underpinnings of society and their own sexism biases (which infect their every thought and action) virtually invisible to themselves. How could that possibly be “easy to change”? If the problem is anything like what you describe then it will be very difficult to impossible to change.


    • What can I say? I have a lot of hope and respect for the human race. We are absolutely unique in our adaptability, our capability for self-knowledge, and our unbounded powers of analysis and imagination. Societies and cultures, while in some ways larger than the sum of their parts, are in the end comprised of people, and we have the power to adapt those systems to our needs, not blindly allow them to fall into self-perpetuating cycles that grind us all in their cogs. Cultures are not static but ever-changing throughout history. You have the power to ask questions. You have the power to affect others with your behavior, for better or for worse; you have the power to understand those consequences, and modify your behavior accordingly. You have the power to maintain tradition, or break from it; to create new cultural norms to replace the old. Every single one of us has that power. Welcome to civilization.


  15. Even women will use “guys” when addressing a group of other women – “you guys”. I don’t take offense at that kind of slang, it’s sort of gender neutral to me. Maybe in another language besides English there is a more neutral term. I use “dude” too, sometimes to refer to other women, it doesn’t seem sexist to me.


  16. I like your post a lot. I’d like it even more if the headline were something like “Ways men can be more welcoming to women in tech”, rather than the current headline, which uses a loaded term “sexist” to describe men who don’t know better yet than to speak in certain ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I think the concept of “unintentional sexism” is important, in other words, you don’t have to be a giant woman-hating jerk in order to accidentally perpetuate sexist norms. In fact it’s stuff we all do. For better or for worse, by its nature this is a list of things not to do! The list of ways to be more actively welcoming would be a different, but equally important one. :)

      Liked by 1 person

  17. This is a great post, thanks for writing it. I’ve been struggling with the #1 issue at home of all places.

    I am super lucky to be married to an amazing partner, and her and I have a 3yr old son and 1.5hr old daughter. Yet, what do I say when I’m talking to the kids or everyone? “So what do you think guys, should we read, play, etc..” I am working hard to transfer to using ‘kids’ when talking to the kids, and ‘everyone’, or ‘all’, when talking to the whole family.

    Having a daughter opened my eyes to a lot of these items you mention above. I appreciate your efforts to help change things. I am doing what I can too.


  18. This is an excellently written, well-thought out article. I love all the ping-backs to other works as well and will check them out when I have more time. Going to share this with my college’s women’s leadership network!


  19. This is another extremely interesting article on a topic I have encountered 3x’s this week- in separate articles. Excellent


  20. I would like to highlight one “microaggression” you referred to in #6 “Assuming Women are in Non-Technical Roles”. The term “marketing chick” carries a great deal of stigma for women working in non-technical roles. This term often implies a woman who is perceived as “less-than”, “parasitic” and “highly sexualized” etc. Its a tiresome and demeaning term that plays a part in putting all women in high tech on a spectrum of worthiness with “geek girls” inching ahead of other women in the industry, although all assumably below the worthiness of their male counterparts. In our struggle to differentiate ourselves and establish credibility we throw other hard working women under the bus.


    • Thank you for pointing this out! Shanley Kane wrote a great post about that phenomenon awhile back, which I meant to link to but couldn’t find it.

      There’s definitely a larger issue where everyone in the tech world tends to prioritize the coders as doing all the “important” work, and that interacts nastily with the “assuming women are non-technical” trope. On the one hand, I hate having to “prove” that I’m a programmer; on the other hand, why should it bother me, except that I’ve internalized the same hierarchy? I want to be visible, but don’t want to earn legitimacy in a way that makes it harder for other women to be taken seriously.

      Not sure what the right answer is. Maybe the suggestion should just be “don’t assume things, full stop.”


  21. “These are little things. Things that many people do without thinking about them and certainly without intending anything by them. Things that individually are meaningless, but in aggregate set the tone of an entire community.” This is such a good point and exactly why changing a society’s view is so difficult! But thank you for pointing these things out. You’ve got to start somewhere!


  22. At our church, we have “Ouch, Opps, OK” which is shorthand for
    “Ouch = that comment hurt/was a microagression”,
    “Opps = Gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way (and I’ll note it for the future)”,
    “OK = I accept your apology and let’s move on.”
    It generally works really well. It has raised the level of awareness how seemingly harmless comments can hurt, how it is usually unintentional, and it’s OK to make mistakes and move on.


  23. Thanks for the article! I’m a guy who typically tries hard to treat humans equally so while I was reading the article I was thinking “most of these points probably won’t apply to me”. When I got to your list, I found a lot did – starting with the first point!

    Number 8 hit me pretty hard too – I know I’ve told male friends to “put down their purse”, or “man up”, etc when in a physical competition… I’m sorry for that. It seemed like a funny way to tell them to play harder, but you opened my eyes that this is not fair and not funny. I don’t think I truly believe that men are better than women (although reading your list is making me re-evaluate), but my comments certainly reinforce the opposite.

    Anyways – my main reason for commenting was to ask a question. I was raised to be polite to everyone and to always have good manners. One part of my upbringing that is still with me is to open/hold doors for women. If a guy is right behind me, of course I will hold the door for him, but I do pay special attention to holding doors for women: making sure I don’t walk through the door before her, hold the door for a few seconds if she isn’t close to the door yet, etc. I’ve been thinking about this question recently, and after reading your article I thought this was a good opportunity to ask the question. I was just curious to get your take on this?

    I think most people feel it is an honor to have someone go out of their way to hold a door open for them, but does the fact that I only do it for one gender make it bad? I never make a big deal about it, and I feel that I am respectful, but I definitely go farther out of my way for women than men. I’m not trying to rationalize or justify, but I’m really curious to get your take on it. It would be a tough change to *not* hold the door for a woman, so I guess a “fix” could be to hold the door the same for everyone :) Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this recently, especially as I think about raising my son.

    Thanks again for the though-provoking article – I’ll definitely be changing my mindset on a few things!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a tricky one. Holding doors for women more than men is a good example of what’s called “benevolent sexism”. This Wikipedia page is a good read, but the general idea is that it might subtly reinforce societal stereotypes about women being less capable or needing the protection of men.

      In general, it’s better to treat everyone equally well than to single someone out, even if it’s in a way that’s complimentary on the surface. I don’t think there’s any argument against holding the door for everyone, though. :)


      • I open/hold doors for everyone, young/old/whatever. Still not sure why, and sometimes I get to stand there for a while like a professional door-person…


      • I actually hold the door for everyone and I often stand like a doorman while several people go by. I do however expect a thank-you nod/smile/acknowledgement and I tend to get offended when someone just passes by like I’m not there. I know it’s wrong because they didn’t ask me to hold the door for them, but I still do :)


      • Thanks for the link and the reply! I will start holding doors for everyone :)

        One thing that came to mind while reading the Wikipedia page you shared was how embedded this stuff is in our culture. It is so embedded into me I don’t even think about it – it is a reflex: if I see a woman approaching a door near me, I will hold it for her, even if I’m not going through that door myself. And it is not because I think she is less capable (maybe at one time that is why the “rule” of holding doors for women was started though) – it really is just a programmed response for me. It just shows me how many things in our culture are done without even thinking about it – pretty much the point of your article, I guess!


    • I’ve always held doors for others too, to be polite. When I realised I was being “benevolently sexist” (though I had no concept of that term at the time) by perhaps waiting a little longer for a woman or something, I decided to do just what you suggest and behave the same to everyone. My reasoning was essentially: there’s no reason to wait longer for someone unless you think they’re less able than you, and there’s no reason not to wait for anyone if it would be rude not to (i.e. you’d basically be closing the door in their face).

      So I hold the door for anyone the same these days. I don’t wait extra long for anyone (unless they’re carrying something heavy, then see above). Also, if I’m holding the door for a line of people and I’m “relieved” of that duty by someone in the line, male or female, I immediately accept with a smile. This is important, as I’ve seen other men who will accept this from another man, but insist with a woman, which I don’t think is appropriate.


      • Thanks for this input! One thing that is so built into me is that I shouldn’t walk through the door before the woman, but if a man is behind me I’ll walk through first while holding the door for him. I think I would feel guilty and embarrassed to walk through the door in front of a woman – it feels like I would be disrespecting her. So are women not offended by people walking through doors ahead of them? I feel like this would take me a while to break this habit, so maybe in the meantime I just let the person behind me walk through the door first. Again – it’s amazing how these things get built into our culture and we do them without even knowing why or thinking. If anything, this article definitely got me thinking!


      • I’ve caught myself doing the opposite thing, where I sort of sweep through a door assuming I get to go first. It’s weird. Though maybe it avoids the whole “You go ahead” “No you go ahead” “No YOU” sort of deal?

        Personally I’m not offended by people walking through doors ahead of me. I think whoever gets to the door first should open it and then hold it for other people to go through, because that’s just being considerate. It’s interesting that even such a tiny, everyday act can have so much cultural expectation attached to it!


  24. This was a delight to read. Good writing goes down like beer battered onion rings: I just want more! There’s a lot of power in your writing, you present like a TED Talks speaker who knows damned well she’s right and is confident that everybody within earshot is about to come on board. Go, Kat, go!

    I’d never heard of the “mom” trope before but I immediately bristled at it. Why automatically mom and not dad? Grrr.

    “…Note from a boner.” Great line.

    Regarding No. 11 and gender essentialism, the tired old fallacy of pink brains and blue brains is finally publicly being ripped to shreds by, you know, facts. Can we all just stop with the wooly mammoth-hunting vs. baby-rearing-in-a-cave references now? There’s far more nurture going on than nature in this disaster of a social experiment we call “growing up.” We are each 100% human, case closed.




    Fist pump.


  25. Thanks Kat — this was really helpful! I’m particularly guilty of the “guys” thing because, to me it’s gender-neutral, but I need to be more aware that that’s simply not the norm.

    I’m a bit confused about #5 (sexualizing good tech). You say that it creates a “fratboy” atmosphere, but how is sexual hyperbole a male-only expression? I feel like like I’ve heard lots of women use expressions like “That’s hot!” to describe cars, achievement, and things that are not literal objects of human attractiveness. That said, in general I avoid sexual statements in work context simply because I feel like people just don’t need to deal with that at work. And as you say, why sexualize something when there are plenty of other, better words that can be used to express admiration for code/tech/etc.

    An additional thought on #8’s “unnecessarily-gendered terms” Personally, I’m reticent to throw in the towel on words. “Hysterical” and “shrill” have perfectly valid, non-gender-associated uses. How can we reclaim these words, rather than losing them? And is it inappropriate to use “Woman-up” for women and “Man-up” for men?


    • That said, in general I avoid sexual statements in work context simply because I feel like people just don’t need to deal with that at work.

      Answered your own question — that’s it exactly. :)

      For words like “hysterical”, I think the idea is just to notice if you’re more likely to apply them to women than to men, and if so, why that is. (Flip side: What words would you only use to describe the behavior of men?)


    • It might be interesting to research the origins of the term hysteria; coined about 1800, from Latin hystericus “of the womb” (Greek hysterikos, hysteria). Webster: “Hysteria (Med) A nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits. The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.” It’s been far more widely used in the last century, but it started as a term characterising neurotic women (with connotations of both frailty and sexual frustration). Unless you see someone in an actual paroxysm, I find the term pretty offensive because of the derivation.


  26. Some great points. I only wish the title used ‘people’ instead of ‘men’. I think there are women who are guilty of some of the above too (e.g. using guy’s/girls/mom/sexy). I fear by using titles that almost accuse/generalise ‘men’ as ‘sexist’ we immediately lose an audience of men who unfortunately view the word ‘feminism’ with negative connotations (e.g. man haters or women who make mountains out of molehills) and that’s not what the article is about.


    • It’s certainly common among people of any gender. The post started out as a response to a specific question, and that’s what stuck.

      I like framing it as “Things men do…” because, for better or for worse, they currently have more power to influence the culture by speaking up. (There’s also an argument to be made about whether or not women doing the same things is as harmful, and I can see both sides of that one.)

      Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’m afraid the men you refer to would write this post off, regardless of its title.


  27. Very useful post – I’m on a panel with 4 women for a tech conference in Belgium where we are trying to disseminate practical things people can do. This is extremely helpful.


  28. I agree with most here: great article. I would also rather see “guys” become gender neutral… but it’s not, yet, we’re just not there, so I think I’ll let others work on that one, and I’ll join the party when it seems reasonable.

    The only term I will have a hard time letting go of is “granny gear”! Both my grandma’s are tough as nails, salt of the earth, take no sh*t kinda ladies, and as progressive as they come, but I just don’t have another term for the “uphill mountain climbing gear combination”. But, as you point out throughout, and repeat in the comments, this article is one person’s thoughts and reactions, and I think I can follow the spirit of your principles, if not quite the letter. :-)

    Lastly, I love your feedback in the comments. You have patience and thoughtfulness, and I hope these are the only weapons people need — we, you, and everyone — to fight against the extreme, depressing, overwhelming intolerance that we are bearing witness to. It’s really hard not to want to fight back with equal vitriol and anger, but that would be becoming what we despise. Compassion is hard, dammit! It’s always refreshing to see in the wild.


  29. Thanks for the post. Really! As you said yourself, it’s hard to deprogram yourself from all these horrible things that we grow up into. Any help is much appreciated. I’ll keep practice what you’ve told and informing myself.

    Glad I’m not such a bad person, as I kinda already did most of the things, even living in one of the most sexist states of Brazil (Ceará, most known for the Fortaleza city). Things are pretty bad, sadly, around here if you pay enough attention…


  30. I agree with everything you’ve said, pretty much, though I don’t work in tech. I think a lot of what you’re saying can be boiled down to “don’t be an asshole”, minus some of the more minor points (the use of “guys”, etc.) I also agree with you on the use of “girls” to refer to adult women – women seem to do this more than men, from what I can tell, but it’s really irritating to me for some reason. Even though I’m not a woman. Not sure why, but I agree, anyway.

    It seems to me the media has to take its fair share of blame for some of the stuff on your list as well, especially the whole geek girl stereotype thing. I blame The Big Bang Theory, myself. That show irritates me and all the people I know in tech either ignore it or actively hate it.


  31. Wow, great article – I’m sure most people have fallen into a couple of those comfortable well worn phrases.

    However, some do appear to be US centric though. Frat boys, for example, have no real meaning (outside of juvenile films like Porkys – showing my age there) to much of the rest of the world.

    Females (ferengi, lol), women, girls, ladies, etc. Which is the right collective noun, any of them, or do we use people or even “humans” (making a huge assumption there)?

    In the UK it is common to use boys and girls to refer to gender, independent of age. A boys night out, a girls night out, for example are common phrases used by all genders and gender identities.
    Using y’all in the UK would not work well, and using “folks” can be seen as condescending to everyone.
    In a multi-everything world, language becomes a minefield – especially when countries share the same base language, but have diverged over time.
    US-UK differences are mostly well known, but we still get caught out. I saw someone refer to a black persons hair as nappy hair, which confused me as a nappy in the UK is what the US calls a diaper.
    Similarly, fanny in the US is not the same as fanny in the UK (in the UK is is slang for vagina), so a fanny pack… Well you can see the problem.

    Not to say that the UK doesn’t have sexism, it does, in heaps. We also deal with class, race, colour (different from race) and disability discrimination – same as the rest of the world.

    I stopped using gender specifics in meetings a long time ago, after I first lead a mixed gender team, and began using terms like “welcome everyone” or “OK people”. Like “OK people, let’s get started.”

    I am guilty of not always calling out ‘isms’ when I hear or see them – and I will try to do better.

    Assuming a level of attractiveness = level of technical ability is widespread among my generation. Years of exhibitions where a certain types of models were used to draw men towards each booth or mini presentation, made this entrenched to a degree – pretty people are eye candy, talk to the other people if you want to know any details.
    This is changing for my daughter and son’s generation, from what I see the hidden sexism is not really happening within their groups.

    However, I will be taking the key points from this, and the linked articles, to create an information page about this subject for everyone in my company – which is pretty diverse (nationality, race, religion, creed, colour, gender and sexuality) – along with links to this article and the others.

    If it stops even one person unknowingly offending another by accidentally using a sexist term (especially with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries) then it is time we’ll spent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about my US-centricism! Not every culture has the same connotation for words, even if those words have the same denotative meaning. I knew about “fanny” but the other meaning of “nappy” would never have occurred to me! I spent some time in Ireland, where I learned it’s possible to have some absolutely fascinating misunderstandings between two people who technically speak the same language.

      Liked by 1 person

  32. “Hot” seems often applied in ways that don’t seem to stem from a gender specific start. For example, its often used in sports to denote an athlete or team which is doing really well… and that usage has even been explicitly used in various sports video games where a player would be “hot” and therefore capable of more while the “hot” lasted (see also en fuego or on fire). I do wonder which came first, then, the “female hotness” vs this alternate usage.

    Guess I should switch to “on fire” instead.. if that’s safe ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m loving all the discussion about that one! So much of this stuff is borderline and really dependent on the context. I’m trying out usages of “hot” in my head and, applied to a person (man or woman), they seem to always mean “attractive” rather than “kicking butt”. I think it’d be weird if I said “You’re really hot today,” to a male colleague, haha. That might be a cultural thing (e.g. California/US)?

      “On fire” is a pretty great substitute… even if it could also be a bad thing. :P


    • Hahaha! I like “on fire” :)

      Worth mentioning, I think, is that “hot” needn’t be gender specific to still be a problem by sexualising something in what should be a non-sexual context. I actually think this one (and perhaps some others) do depend very much on the context they’re used too.


  33. Thanks for the concrete examples (along wih some rationale). As former associate faculty at an HSI community college, as well as a science/engineering/opensource geek, I like to think I’m at least a little bit sensitive/enlightened along these lines, but apprently I need reminding (*and* some explicit pointers) to think about the “small” gender-related terms you point out. Thanks again for some things to think about…


  34. so i’m guessing i shouldn’t be starting meetings with “Ehrm, guys? while this is a hot and sexy topic, let’s man up and create this campaign just for dudes. because we all know that girls are just not that into soldering silicon chips…” i feel like i need to register for some gender sensitivity training.


  35. I’m noticing the number of women commenting that they like using and being called “guys”. I wonder if that’s part of the point of Kat Hagan’s article. I think its precisely because women are devalued that many women would rather be referred to with a non-denigrated word like “guy”.

    That seems sad to me. I know that I, too, would far prefer being called “guy” to being called “gal” or “girl”, and it’s because the former seems casual and friendly, while the latter seem patronizing and diminishing. But why is that, really? Certainly the words themselves have no inherent value or meaning. Meaning and value are assigned to words through their use.

    So what I’d really love is to not feel so disgusted by words that describe women. I’d like to feel comfortable, strong, seen, and appreciated by the word “gal”, instead of adopting “guy” in order to feel those things. The thing is, I’m not going feel good about the words being used to refer to me until I know that they’re being SAID with good feelings behind them!


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