The Role of Language as a Carrier of Bias: Unraveling the Impact On Women in the Workplace



5 women sitting at computers, around a desk


Language and communication play a crucial role in shaping our perceptions and interactions within the workplace. We may feel competent, capable, and informed when we communicate,  but is this how we are being understood?  It is important to acknowledge that language itself can be a carrier of hidden biases, particularly when it comes to gender. Closing the gender gap in communication requires us to examine how women talk and write, and how their voices may be influenced or marginalized within power dynamics. By understanding these dynamics, we can work towards creating a @more equitable—and more successful—work environment.

Linguistics research has shown that language can reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate unequal power dynamics. For instance, certain words or phrases may inadvertently convey gender bias or reinforce traditional gender roles. This can have a profound impact on how women are perceived and valued in professional settings. To address this issue, it is essential for individuals and organizations to actively challenge these biases in their communication practices. Recognizing the hidden biases embedded in language and communication is vital, both for closing the gender gap in the workplace and for allowing businesses to hire and promote the best candidates. 

Language, a powerful tool that uniquely shapes our interactions and perceptions, holds the potential to either empower or reinforce unequal power dynamics. In the workplace, the impact of language on women is particularly pronounced, as they often find themselves navigating a linguistic landscape shaped by male-centric communication styles. This article explores the role of language as a carrier of bias and delves into how women can harness the power of words and challenge these unequal power dynamics. 

Language, Power, and Representation in Leadership  

Unconscious beliefs regarding gender and perceptions of power (and power dynamics) can have a major impact on how women in business and leadership positions are perceived. Even in seemingly innocuous ways, language can reinforce biased perceptions about women’s competence. For instance, studies have shown that the linguistic subtleties of language, such as addressing women by their first names while using titles for men, can undermine women’s authority and position them as less competent or lower in status. Women often face a double-bind situation when it comes to assertiveness. Assertive language, which is often seen as necessary for leadership and authority, is often penalized when it comes from women. They may be labeled as “bossy”  or “aggressive.” On the other hand, women are also expected to be polite and accommodating, which can lead to their ideas being dismissed or undervalued. Similarly, agentic language, which emphasizes assertiveness and control, is often associated with male leaders, while communal language, which emphasizes empathy and collaboration, is often associated with female leaders. Hedging  is another language habit in which women tend to engage more than men. Hedging involves using tentative language, downplaying one’s expertise, or apologizing excessively (for example, “I’m no expert in the field, but…” Or, “I could be wrong, but…” ). While it may be an attempt to appear modest or avoid confrontation, it can undermine women’s confidence and credibility.

From the Playground to Professional Power Dynamics

Throughout history, societal norms have influenced the development of language, leading to linguistic patterns  that favor men and marginalize women. For instance, certain terms and phrases inherently carry gendered connotations, perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing unequal power dynamics in the workplace. Male communication is agentic in nature, and rooted in dominance and authority, whereas female communication is linguistically manifested in a more communal approach to conversation, avoiding confrontation and one-upmanship, thus compromising the perception of competency and authority. To be heard and respected, women often find themselves compelled to adhere to male-dominated communication styles. This expectation places an additional burden on women, as they are forced to adapt to a communication framework that may not align with their natural inclinations. Such conformity can stifle their authentic voice, limiting their ability to express ideas and contribute effectively. To create a more inclusive, balanced and, ultimately, successful workplace, it is crucial to challenge - and act to neutralize - the biases ingrained in language.

The way we use language can have a significant impact on how we consider, and regard,  both men and women - including roles and expectations for leadership. For example, the default use of masculine pronouns in many contexts can contribute to the under-representation of women in leadership. Despite the abundance of studies highlighting the positive impact  of women in executive corporate leadership positions on company culture  and overall financial performance, there continues to be a significant underrepresentation of women in these roles. In fact, women represent roughly a quarter of C-suite leaders globally, and women of color just one in 16.  

A natural starting point for any discussion of language, power, and gender is linguist Robin Lakoff’s proposition that men’s and women’s speech differ substantially and that these differences reflect women’s powerlessness in society. It is suggested that lexical hedges, tag questions, rising intonation, empty adjectives, intensifiers, and super-polite forms constitute some of the differences. The workplace is no exception to these language dynamics. A particular pressure is placed on women to adopt traditionally masculine communication styles to be perceived as professional. The implications of unconscious gender bias range from subtle to severe. It starts with the way we write.

AI, LLM, ML, NLP: Leveraging Tech Tools to Uncover and Address Gender Bias in Language

One way to change social norms, expectations and perceptions is to be aware of, and, when necessary, modify how we use language.  By leveraging the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), large language models (LLM), machine learning (ML), and natural language processing (NLP), we open up a world of possibilities for dissecting and confronting the gender bias that is (currently) ingrained within our language. Specifically, Generative AI has the potential not only to to identify ineffective words and phrases in your text, but to suggest alternatives, as well,  allowing you to make conscious changes that empower your communication. Through advanced algorithms and deep analysis, we can identify the subtle nuances and patterns that perpetuate stereotypes, creating unequal power dynamics. By embracing these technologies, we will create more supportive, equitable, and successful business environments.

Jana Sopf

Jana Sopf is the linguistics analyst and advisor for™. She is a marketer and linguist and holds an MSc in Business and Marketing from the Warwick Business School and a BA in Linguistics from the University of Warwick. Her areas of interest are sustainability, gender equality, and human rights.