“Guys” isn’t gender neutral

I wrote this post because when I was looking recently, I couldn’t find a good article that communicated this point. Presumably my search-fu wasn’t working that day, because I’ve just found several, which I’ve referenced below.

The word “guys” isn’t gender neutral.

I don’t know many people who use “guy” singular, to refer to somebody who doesn’t identify as male. Yes. I know that progressive, descriptive dictionaries like Merriam-Webster state that both “guy” and “guys” are gender neutral, while Oxford still states that the singular form is male.

Yes, I know that many people treat it as gender neutral, even people who don’t identify as male. I am aware of plenty of women who will say “guys” when referring to a mixed-gender group. Some might even use it to refer to a group of all non-male people.

I invite you to consider this, though. Just because some, maybe even many, people who don’t identify as men consider “guys” to be gender neutral, that doesn’t mean everyone does. What if one person in that target group being referred to as “guys” does consider it to be a gendered term, and as a result, feels othered by your language? What if your language, to that individual (and there may be many of them in any given group), tells them “I assume that this is a male-dominated group and anybody else is an anomaly who isn’t important enough to be recognised or addressed?” There’s a good chance that person isn’t comfortable raising this issue themselves, so you have no way of knowing how many people feel excluded by the word “guys.”

I work in IT. Like many other fields, it’s male-dominated. If we want to diversify our workplaces (and who wouldn’t, given so much evidence that diversity is a Good Thing?), we need to stop using language that may make people feel excluded or uncomfortable. In my opinion, it’s a needless microagression.

So, let’s put aside the argument of whether or not you consider “guys” to be gender neutral, and ask a different question:

If you knew that your language, this single word, “guys,” was making a person you’re addressing uncomfortable, wouldn’t you want to change it?

It’s not that hard! there are plenty of alternatives:

  • folks
  • people
  • peeps
  • y’all
  • everyone

Those are just the few I came up with off the top of my head. I’ve just done a quick search, and found this blog post, which adds, among others:

  • friends
  • team
  • pals

(check out that post for more), and that post references Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist, which I’ve only skimmed, but which is an amazing resource and links to heaps of other amazing resources, such as A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy, and Geek Feminism.

If you still would like to be convinced that “guys” isn’t gender neutral, A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy offers three exemplary thought experiments:

Thought Experiment #1: Imagine a room full of men and women. Someone stands at the front and says, “I want all the guys to stand up.” What happens next?

Thought Experiment #2: You are with a woman. You tell her you think she’s such a guy, a great guy, the smartest guy you’ve ever known. Note the expression on her face.

Thought Experiment #3: You turn on cable news and the first thing you hear is someone saying, “Everyone knows it’s a guy’s world.” Picture in your mind what he’s trying to say.

I love these examples so much.

Now, back to the matter at hand: changing your language. Yes. It requires time and effort, to stop using “guys” as a collective noun for a group of diverse genders. I have largely settled on “folks” as my replacement word, and I still slip up after at least a year of trying. There are certain situations that I’m so used to saying “guys” in, that I have a lot of unlearning to do. But the important thing is that I’m trying, and after just a couple of months of conscious effort, 90% of the time, I was not using a term that some people may find exclusionary.

So pick a new word to replace “guys” in your everyday vocabulary. There are plenty of them. It won’t take all that long to get used to if you keep at it, I promise you, and most people won’t even notice the change.

But for those that do notice, it’ll mean the world to them.

That’s all, guys folks!

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Author: mattcen

Linux sysadmin/advocate, @scoutsvic leader, @okfnau, bisexual/polyamorous geek. He/him. Opinions mine. PGP: DB91 CFEF 322D C608 385F 563C 2F88 1AC6 4A16 1033

2 thoughts on ““Guys” isn’t gender neutral”

  1. You’re offended by people saying ‘guys?’ Maybe there are bigger things to worry about, or maybe you just have the need to feel like a victim.

    1. People can worry about the “bigger” things and still care about this. The “guys” microagression is one of many ways equality is thwarted.
      I also never said I was offended by this. My point is that it’s harmful.

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