Creating a culture of inclusivity in a society of pervasive masculinity

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

Maintaining a culture of inclusivity in the workplace can’t be a top-down approach. It starts with how we talk to each other, every. single. day.

Not long ago, our Principal Product Manager became our newest GM. It was an incredibly well-deserved appointment. And, like everyone at Cogent, they are smart, creative, goal-driven and, above all, empathetic. These are ALL the qualities one wants in a General Manager and I feel quite lucky to work alongside them.

Pictured above: Amelia our GM, Tappl Founder JC and Jimmy our People Guy.

Like most people do when they assume a new role in an organisation, they update their LinkedIn profile. And, as anyone familiar with using LinkedIn will know, LinkedIn likes to make a big song and dance about people moving jobs. It notifies everyone in that person’s network and it prompts those people to adorn them with congratulations.

And no, this isn’t a story about how LinkedIn’s weird automatic functions went a little haywire and did something stupid like celebrate a demotion. No, it was what appeared in human responses to her announcement that I found curious.

“You smashed it!”
“You’re killing it!”
“Kicking goals!”

It was, on the large part, quite violent.

This got me thinking. Where did this language come from? And is it even appropriate?

If you knew our GM, you wouldn’t associate any of those words with their character. They don’t smash anything (except maybe avocado before it goes on toast). I’m not sure they’ve ever killed anything either, if they have, they haven’t been caught. And kicked goals? Sport? Ha.

Maybe it was LinkedIn somehow promoting this strong language. But, I checked it out, and it seems unlikely. All LinkedIn does is prompt us to “Say Congrats”. Pretty benign and uninventive, yes, but not violent in any way.

There didn’t seem to be any correlation between men or women in their sentiment either. Women were congratulating them on smashing stuff as much as men.

Then I thought, Maybe smashing things could be a reference to the ye olde version of ‘smashing’. As in, “That’s a smashing idea old chap”. But I doubt it. I know artisanal hipster things are back, but we haven’t gone THAT far yet.

So if it’s not the tech, and it’s not a reflection of the person’s character, and it’s not gender, and it’s not a yearning to return to a time where the Great Gatsby was first published, then what?

I can’t help but think this is one of those examples of something so deep in our culture, something so historically ingrained that it can’t be anything but the pervasiveness of masculinity.

A reminder of the pervasiveness of masculinity

Smashing things, killing things, and sports-related metaphors like ‘kicking goals’ just ‘sounds’ very male to me. It reminds me of the bro-cultures I’ve worked in as part of other organisations. It makes me reminisce about all of those terrible job ads of the early 2000s (and even some today who haven’t evolved) when people were looking for ninjas and heroes to do their software design work instead of thoughtful, creative people.

It’s been written about time and time again. We know we live in a patriarchal society where ‘male-ness’ has been the dominant metaphor for so long. Where extrovert-ism, over-confidence and swagger all reap rewards of corporate ladder climbing, financial and social success. Where introverts, deep-thinkers, and active-listeners are not rewarded for what their unique perspectives bring to the table.

Every company shouts from their rooftops about diversity and inclusion. “The glass ceiling doesn’t exist here! We’re a meritocracy, ” sounds utterly repetitive now. And no culture is more obviously doing this than that of our various levels of government right now. But, here we find ourselves, on LinkedIn, providing positive reinforcement to someone through words like smashing, killing and kicking.


Change the language, change the culture.

It’s all well and good for companies to update their values from their boardroom and say that they’re ‘officially’ diverse and inclusive. But, when every human in that organisation has learned that a masculine language – of violence, dominance and sports – is what makes you succeed in life, a new diversity policy won’t make a dent.

At Cogent, language is really important. We recognise that it’s a day-to-day manifestation of the values we hold. And, to be honest, I’m one of those people inside Cogent who call people out for use of language that doesn’t reflect those values. We say we’re a values-driven organisation, and so our language has to be too. Otherwise, well, to be frank, it all goes to shit. Here’s an example.

In every place I’ve worked before Cogent, we’ve referred to people as “Resources”. Or, in some worse places, “Human Capital”. Wow.

No, seriously, WOW. Just take 20 seconds. Think about that. How would you feel if you were “Human Capital”, an “Operational Expenditure.”

If there’s ever a way to dehumanise an employee, it’s to think about them as Human Capital.

Now, when you work in a consultancy full of humans that you call Resources and you need to plan where those ‘resources’ will be ‘deployed’ (yes, a term from defence forces), you end up with “Resource Planning.”

You can see where I’m going with this so I probably don’t need to go on. The masculine metaphors are rife. But, what I do need to show is how Cogent is different. Be prepared, this will sound very very stupidly simple.

At Cogent, we employ people. My colleagues are people. My manager is a person. Our clients are people. When we’re discussing what sort of work those people do, we call that “People Planning.” We have a board in our office called “The People Planner”. Here it is:

The obviousness and the simplicity of this astounds me still.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but we’re all from companies who have instilled in us a culture of ‘resources’. Just like trying to change one’s habits to using the ‘they/them’ pronoun for our people who don’t identify as male or female, It’s hard and it takes concerted time and effort.

In conversations, I notice that we’ll still slip the word ‘resources’ in when what we really mean is people. In fact, the planning software we use, 10,000ft, use “Resource” as their label in place of “People”. I’ve asked them to change it but the response from Georgina, their support person, was this:

“We changed the language to “resource” to incorporate a new placeholder feature we released towards the end of last year. We had previously used the terminology of “user” to refer to people but decided to replace this so that a person/resource was more distinguishable from a user. ”

And, as a software designer, I would say the same thing. I mean, I understand that reasoning. You have a large user base and you need to reflect the language they use, otherwise the software doesn’t make sense to them.

But, funnily enough, I’ve noticed that the primary users of that software, our GMs, are the ones who slip up the most about referring to people as ‘resources’ at Cogent. And it’s not their fault. I know the values they hold are consistent with the business and with mine. They’re are genuinely empathetic, understanding and downright lovely people. This shows me that it’s clear that the software has an effect on the way we label. It’s that old saying, “First we shape the tools, then the tools shape us.”

What does this have to do with anything? My point is it’s because of this sort of thing that we need reminding that our ‘resources’ are people. It’s not a failure of the culture if we slip up, it’s just the context in which we’re working. I’m one of those annoying people who catch people out when they use that term. And, I know I’m really annoying for it. But, to maintain our values-driven culture, we need to train ourselves to use the language that is consistent with our values, not the language that we’re bombarded with in every waking moment of our lives; language that is consistent with the values of neo-liberal mass industrialisation that was invented so that bosses could feel better about treating their people like units.

But what about that smashing it thing?

In the end, shifting language takes a lot of effort. Trying to keep our language values-aligned in the face of larger cultural trends and the habits we’ve adopted from our lives in different, less progressive workplaces is hard. I can’t imagine the effort required to shift an entire population. It’s one of those things that can’t really be driven by a top-down approach alone. It needs to be one of those collective effort things. Problem is, people don’t often agree on much.

As Cogent grows, our culture is going to evolve, which means our language will too. I can’t be a lone member of the word police, and no one expects me too. But once many individuals try to instil a habit of using values-aligned language, that becomes the norm. Those norms form new habits. And those new habits form culture. Then you can truly have a values-driven business.

So, next time you want to congratulate someone, here’s a few suggestions in case you can’t think of anything except for violence. Copy and paste them if you like.

“Congratulations. You’ve worked very hard for this!” or

“Well done on your new promotion. Your intelligence, creativity and empathy make you perfect for the job”.

It only takes one of us to talk like this in a comment stream to demonstrate to others that it’s possible to provide positive reinforcement to someone without adopting the male-centric language that we’ve come to fallback on from habit. A side benefit is that you also sound more articulate.

Soon enough, we’ll all forget about that time we smashed it, killed it and kicked all those goals. Well, at least when we’re talking about people’s career progression. Sport or Gladiatorial fights to death might be a different story.

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