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21 November 2018
While using terms like 'sweetheart' and 'babe' in the workplace may come from a friendly place, they may cause female staff to feel undervalued and could land individuals in hot water.
The recent brouhaha over 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'. In light of recent events, this article discusses the legal and social pitfalls of using gendered language at work are discussed.
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 are a plethora of terms that are used to refer to women which can infantilise, undermine and sexualise them. This can be the case regardless of whether they are said with warmth and friendliness and without malicious intention. The 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 regardless of gender, 'girls' would never be used in the same way. Further, these terms attribute male characteristics to tasks and roles, excluding or ignoring women's involvement or contribution.
Several legal risks arise from the use of gendered language in the workplace.
First, using sexualising terms like 'babe' could form the basis of a sexual harassment claim, as it may constitute unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. In 2006 a New South Wales tribunal found that calling a female employee 'babe' and 'honey' constituted sexual harassment. These days, it is difficult to envisage circumstances where calling a 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 (eg, 'manning the phones' or 'manning up') may give the impression that they favour male employees as they are attributing the important roles and tasks to male characteristics and thus impliedly delegitimising 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 affect that it can have, the consistent use of gendered language which undermines individuals may constitute unreasonable behaviour that creates a risk to health and safety in the workplace.
The person in the office who uses language which sexualises, infantilises or undermines women is likely to earn themselves a reputation as out of touch and a bit creepy (among other things). Likewise, consistent use of male-oriented terms can exclude women and give the impression of a 'boys club' or signify a lack of consideration or respect for women's valuable input in the workplace.
This can have a significant affect on the culture and dynamics between team members, as gendered language erodes respect and can decrease satisfaction levels and morale among women.
To avoid these risks, individuals must examine the way that they use gendered language in the workplace. It goes without saying that policies regarding gender discrimination, harassment and bullying at work must be reviewed to counter gendered language and counselling and training employees about the effects of gendered language should be offered.
For further information on this topic please contact Aaron Goonrey at Lander & Rogers' Sydney office by telephone (+61 2 8020 7700) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Alternatively, contact Emma Lutwyche at Lander & Rogers' Melbourne office by telephone (+61 3 9269 9000) or email (email@example.com). The Lander & Rogers website can be accessed at www.landers.com.au.
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