Article main image
Mar 31, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Comedian Demetri Martin does a comedy bit about how if you want to sound like a creep, just add “…ladies” to the end of everything you say, as in, “Thanks for coming to the show… ladies” and, “Help, I’ve fallen into a well and I’m trapped… ladies.”

It’s funny because it’s true – addressing women with terms of endearment like “ladies,” “baby,” “sweetie,” “girls”, etc. is creepy more often than not.

In the workplace, it’s also highly unprofessional. But, the behavior still persists, much to the chagrin of women everywhere.

Correcting behavior

Perhaps more unsettling is the term “political correctness” – the idea that we will all one day have to police our speech out of fear of being ostracized from society for offending someone with our words. It is invoked ad nauseum when discussing sexism in the workplace.

What you’re saying is we can’t be friendly to each other, is the usual tired response. I call everyone “baby” so I don’t see the problem, and so on. It is almost invariably spun as a form of oppression on the person delivering the offensive speech, which is circumspect at best.

Political correctness debates are ideologically charged and by consequence generally don’t lead to anything productive, so let’s pretend we’re just talking about being professional in the workplace for a moment.

The importance of mutual respect

Of course, we all work or may work with people whom we’ve grown to know and even care about, and speak to them with more familiarity.

No one is saying that familiarity and jocularity are banned from the workplace. In fact, those are some key qualities of a high-performing culture. I’ll go even further – when everyone on a workforce has deep connections with each other it becomes nearly impossible to fail.

But another equally, if not more important, quality of a high-performing culture is mutual respect. Mutual respect doesn’t mean we accept everyone for who they are – that’s unconditional love. Anyone who’s worked with a team before knows that the love is highly conditional; everyone is expected to perform to a certain professional standard.

Mutual respect means going the extra mile to make others feel comfortable working with you. That may mean suppressing some of your natural urges, but since when has that not been a strict requirement to participate in any civilized society?

The deeper you examine the issue, the more you see that the emperor has no clothes.

The power of empathy

This is why it’s a good idea to hold your tongue. It’s about empathy, plain and simple.

If we’re talking about motivating employees, empathy is the currency of our emotional banks and the key to human relationships. By contrast, the political correctness debate doesn’t feature empathy; it is only concerned with pointing fingers from what I can tell.

It wants you to believe that watching what you say is an admission of defeat or surrender, when it’s actually a simple act of empathy from one person to another, just like the millions of empathetic acts that happen every day.

At any given moment, someone in the world is making a small sacrifice to make someone else’s day a little better. It’s in our nature to do this, but somehow when the debate turns to sexism, it becomes abstracted into a freedom of speech wedge issue

I don’t know about you, but I’m not buying it. It seems like we could be treating each other with more respect without losing the values we hold dear. We must remind ourselves that kindness doesn’t cost a thing and is never wasted, a tall order in an era of institutional cynicism.

The late Poet Laureate Maya Angelou taught us that the words you call people don’t really matter as much as how you make them feel. When you call a female colleague “girl” or “baby,” and she tells you it makes her feel degraded, stop. Even if you have a hundred female friends who love it when you do it, someone is asking you to stop, so make them feel respected and just do it. It is hardly an ideological debate.

Some modest proposals

If we have to work together we have to be mindful of the things we say and do, it’s part of the cost of doing business. To that end, here are some modest proposals to how we can stop marginalizing women in the workplace:

  • Call women by their names at work. Sounds crazy, I know, but trust me, treating people as individuals is much more rewarding to your culture, productivity, and bottom line than treating them like representations of gender – MUCH more rewarding. I can’t stress this enough. Give the “baby”, “girls”, and “sweeties” a rest for 8 hours, I promise the world won’t descend into an Orwellian dystopia.
  • By the same turn, women shouldn’t be calling their female colleagues “bitches.” When a woman exhibits what we call male qualities like assertiveness or toughness they are usually labeled a “bitch.” Men often use this stereotype of the “emotional woman” to marginalize them in the workplace. So it makes little sense for other women to perpetuate the behavior. Don’t hate — participate.
  • Pay women equally. It’s really simple: women get paid around 78 percent of what men make, so just audit your salaries and fix it if it’s happening. It’s breathtaking that we are still having this debate in 2015, but even more breathtaking is the fact that if the problem of the gender pay gap went away tomorrow, it would considerably ease tensions in countless workplaces in one swift stroke.

A fine line to walk

Make no mistake; you are walking a fine line when dealing with gender issues in the workplace.

There is probably a very charismatic boss out there who calls everyone “baby” and is beloved. There are most definitely work cultures that feature very tight friendships between colleagues where all manner of offensive things are said about each other on a daily basis.

We don’t want that to stop, because we know that camaraderie is very important to the success of any team, and, that unique cultures deliver unique results.

However, this article is not speaking to those workplaces that have it all figured out.

It’s speaking to the workplaces where it IS a problem, and it becomes a problem when someone feels excluded from the fun. If we could all be open and friendly enough to where nobody would ever get offended at work that would be great, but we must be adults and understand that pleasing everyone is impossible.

So like any good company, we embrace the ideals of professionalism and do what’s best for the group.

Beyond the bluster

But, there are truly men out there who will call women “baby” just because they’re female, without thinking, and it truly makes women uncomfortable. I hate the idea of political correctness, but I hate the idea of someone being marginalized because of their gender even more, and one does not trump the other.

Sexism in the workplace has been engrained in our society for so long it can seem harmless, but the damage it wreaks on teams and productivity is real.

So the real issue is, are we capable of showing restraint at work when it is required? Are we big enough to treat everyone as an individual? Do we have the peace of mind to not turn it into an ideological debate?

Once you get past all the divisive bluster, I think we’re all more than capable of simply being nicer to each other when there’s no reason not to be.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!