Wife or partner, salesman or salesperson? In the workplace, words make a difference
To promote equality in the workplace, we need gender-neutral language, motivation, fact-based planning as well as systematic development of the organisational culture.
The Yhdenvertainen työelämä (“Equality at work”) seminar, organised during Pride Week by the trade union confederations SAK, Akava and STTK, discussed how to promote equality in the workplace. Members of minority groups in Finland still have to consider whether it is safe to fully be themselves in different situations at work.
According to the experts in the seminar, equality is not built by rhetoric, it must be actively promoted, for example by considering what kind of language is used at the workplace.
“Language shapes our reality and changes how we think about our professional community. It’s possible to practice using neutral language, for example by adopting the gender-neutral term ‘partner’,” suggests Secretary General Kerttu Tarjamo from Seta – LGBTI Rights Finland. Tarjamo says there’s no need to be upset if neutral terms seem difficult at first. Paying attention to the language we use will become easier with practice.
Senior Advisor Anna Moring from the Diverse Families network says that she is still practicing using the gender-neutral term “esihenkilö” for superior instead of the old, gendered “esimies”.
According to Moring, Finnish workplaces rarely have sufficient awareness of diverse families. She says this is particularly apparent in various crisis situations when workplaces would need guiding policies, but none are in place. Changing the culture in a workplace requires motivation, but also long-term effort.
According to Moring, the main thing is to define the concept of a family as broadly as possible and to generate an open atmosphere in the workplace.
“Our families are tremendously important to us. They also make us feel better at work and help us cope amid the bustle of our daily tasks,” she points out.
Planning for equality
“There’s no such thing as a perfect workplace,” says Senior Officer Jussi Aaltonen from the Office of the Ombudsman for Equality. According to Aaltonen, many workplaces claim to support equality, but in practice lack policies to address discrimination, for example. He says that drafting an equality plan is a useful tool for developing sensitivity.
However, Aaltonen points out that a document alone is worth nothing if the workplace is not genuinely committed to promoting equality. The planning cannot be left to a single active employee – the entire organisation must commit to and participate in the equality efforts.
Previously companies did not like to explain their diversity policies outside their organisations. Aaltonen points out that this has begun to change during the past few years.
”We are starting to see that organisations can be proud of their good practices to promote equality, and they can tell the world about them. It can even give companies a competitive edge.”
The Act on Equality between Women and Men obligates employers of 30 or more employees to draft an equality plan, but smaller employers should also pay more attention to equality. Aaltonen encourages all employers to draft an equality plan.
“Even if there is no statutory requirement on the employer to draft an equality plan, it does not mean that they can neglect equality. By making the plan, the organisation creates rules for handling discrimination and assigns responsibilities to specific people.”
8 questions to get you started at your workplace:
- Do you hear about equality at work? Promoting equality means talking about it and articulating why it’s important.
- What kind of an example does the leadership set? The example set by the leadership of the organisation is of crucial importance. For example, workplaces could organise a morning coffee for staff to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in May.
- Does the workplace have an up-to-date equality and non-discrimination plan?
- Does the workplace also promote equality when it advertises open positions? Job ads are an excellent place to communicate that the organisation values diversity.
- What kind of language is used at the workplace? Does the language at the workplace assume that everyone has a certain kind of family and significant other?
- What types of facilities are available to staff? Gendered facilities have a very concrete impact on the employees’ experience.
- If the workplace uses forms that require gender information, what are the available options? At minimum, the options should be: “male”, “female”, “other” and “prefer not to say”.
- What types of work uniforms are available? Does the workplace offer uniforms specifically for women and men, or would it be possible to just offer “uniforms” and let employees choose the ones that best suit them?
Questions by Kerttu Tarjamo, Secretary General of Seta – LGBTI Rights Finland.