Corporate workplaces should adopt the SC handbook | Mint

Corporate workplaces should adopt the SC handbook

Corporate language is often casual, toxic and damaging to many groups—women as well as men. (Mint)
Corporate language is often casual, toxic and damaging to many groups—women as well as men. (Mint)


Language is a powerful scalpel. We need leaders who will act as surgeons, wielding this scalpel with precision, intentionality and consistency.

In theory, there is little doubt that stereotypes of any kind are regressive, whether relating to race, gender or nationality, but there is less consensus about how to go about dismantling them in everyday life. Which is why the recent Supreme Court handbook on combating gender stereotypes is so interesting. I believe it employs a ‘scalpel’ approach to gender discrimination, rather than a ‘sledgehammer’ technique—an approach that works equally well for corporate workplaces and other organizations, as it does for the judiciary. Let me explain.

A few years ago, I attended a round-table discussion on gender discrimination hosted by the dean of one of the world’s foremost business schools. The dean explained that the business school had observed that although nearly equal numbers of women and men were admitted to the programme, many more men than women were awarded distinctions at the time of their graduation.

The school decided to investigate the reasons for this imbalance in a number of ways—from documenting whether female students’ voices were not being registered in class to exploring other causes for gender bias. There were a number of reasons, it turned out, not just one, and the school tried to address all of them. A couple of years later, the ratio of distinctions between men and women was much more equal because the root causes had been tackled. “We used a scalpel approach to make precise improvements, not a sledgehammer that would’ve caused more damage," the dean explained.

The Supreme Court of India’s handbook is one such scalpel, because it recognizes that while there are many ways to tackle gender bias, modifying language is one of the most effective.

Language is an expression of attitudes and biases, and this impacts our behaviour and actions. “Words matter so much in cementing and perpetuating unhelpful clichés about men and women. In the corporate world, which continues to be a boys’ club, for too long we have been cavalier about hateful language," observes Shrayana Bhattacharya, an economist and writer on gender and work.

Corporate language is often casual, toxic and damaging to many groups—women as well as men.

Yet, most human resource departments are tasked with improving their diversity ratios and hiring more women in particular. So how would this concise handbook help a business leader who wants to attract and retain more women in the business and create a more women-friendly work environment? In three principal ways.

First, the handbook has a glossary of words that we should avoid using and suggestions of progressive replacements. These could be as simple as saying ‘home-maker’ instead of ‘housewife,’ and the list includes more evolved vocabulary, such as saying ‘sex worker’ rather than ‘prostitute.’ The SC handbook also lists common gender stereotypes that prevail in our society, several of which are extremely relevant to the corporate workplace. For example, that ‘women are more nurturing and better suited to care for others’ and ‘Women who work outside of the home do not care about their children.’

So my first suggestion to any business leader or manager (whether you’re a man, woman or non-binary) is to quietly evaluate your own language against this list. How many of these words do you use on an everyday basis? How many of these stereotypes do you find yourself silently agreeing with? Don’t judge yourself, just be honest. It won’t take more than a few minutes.

Second, the handbook cues research. Managers should find an expert to help them understand the reasons underpinning the progressive alternatives suggested. Don’t just rely on the human resources department. For example, Robin Chaurasiya, founder of Kranti, a non-profit organization that rehabilitates and educates daughters of sex workers, has explained that use of the term ‘sex work’ implies a recognition that these individuals are performing a service to society for which they are being compensated, and that they have rights, like other workers, against abuse. It’s a subtle but important distinction from saying ‘prostitute’—and it reframes the way we look at women in general, not just sex workers.

The Supreme Court has consulted many experts in putting together this handbook, so we must all take a few moments to understand its logic. The examples that it lists enable us to adopt a more progressive view on women and their role in society and at work, and this is a vital and much-needed shift in mindset.

Third, and most important, the handbook helps us call out inappropriate language in meetings and group discussions. If a male colleague suggests that a female colleague won some business because of the kind of clothes she wore, call him out. If a woman is called ‘bossy’ behind her back because she’s assertive, call out the person saying it. Like surgeons with a scalpel, gender bias has to be fought every day.

Language is a powerful scalpel. We need leaders who will act as surgeons, wielding this scalpel with precision, intentionality and consistency. Sharpen your scalpel with this handbook–or risk remaining a blunt and ineffective bystander to corporate and societal change.

Aparna Piramal Raje is an educator and a mental health advocate.

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