This Slack plug-in could help you avoid gender-biased language

The #BiasCorrect campaign from Catalyst aims to tackle unconscious bias, just in time for International Women's Day.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
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Erin Carson
3 min read
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Bossy. Emotional. Shrill.

If you're using one of those words to talk about a female colleague, Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women in the workplace, wants you to check yourself.

Just in time for International Women's Day, and as part of a campaign called #BiasCorrect, Catalyst, along with Burns Group, a New York City-based agency, is launching a plug-in for messaging platform Slack that lets you know if you're about to use biased language when talking about a woman.

The idea is that there are certain words and phrases that tend to be applied more to women than men, Catalyst says, and that language can have a negative effect on women in the workplace in the short and long term.

"Words are a powerful thing," said Catalyst CEO Lorraine Hariton. "What words we say having meaning, and they have implicit meaning behind them. There's bias in how people interpret the words as they relate to the person."

The plug-in works by detecting words, from a list Catalyst created, when they're used in the context of a female pronoun. So, if you're talking about a sports team's aggressive offense, you're not going to get flagged.

If you do happen to use one of these words in the context of a female pronoun, you'll get a private message highlighting it and offering alternative words. Tom Chavez, CEO of Eskalera, the company that built the plug-in, said future versions might also include the ability to scan for proper nouns or the like.

The #BiasCorrect campaign also includes customizable social media posts, an overlay for your social media images, and resources on the concept of unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are biases we may have that we might not be explicitly aware of, like interpreting assertiveness as aggressiveness when it comes to a woman.  

The campaign arrives at a time when there's increased scrutiny about the treatment of women in the workplace.

In fields like technology that tend to be predominantly white and male, there's a push to examine why that is. Unconscious bias, for example, is cited by organizations like the National Center for Women and Information Technology as one of many reasons women might not get hired or promoted.

Gender bias in language isn't a new issue in the tech sector. In 2014, LeanIn.org launched a campaign called #banbossy, to raise awareness about using that adjective to describe young girls.

"Words like bossy send a message: Don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys -- a trend that continues into adulthood," the group's site says.

In 2016 the Harvard Business Review published research that looked at performance reviews from tech companies and a professional services firm. In the reviews under study, 76 percent of references to being "too aggressive" were applied to women versus men.

What's more, in 2018 other research, also published in the Harvard Business Review, analyzed a large military dataset with more than 4,000 participants and 81,000 performance evaluations and found that managers were more likely to describe women negatively. Even words like "compassionate," which might sound positive, can be loaded, the researchers found. They gave an example: "With two equal candidates, who are you going to promote? Someone who is described in their performance evaluations as analytical or someone who is described as compassionate?"

Catalyst's Hariton said everyone could use a lesson when it comes to such bias.

"We can all raise our consciousness and awareness around this and make things more equitable," she said.