What if the documents written to represent your company created a disconnect for over half of the population? What if new associates felt isolated from their roles because training documents created a bias of who the ideal employee should be? As professionals creating corporate documents, do we stop women at the door by creating an on-boarding and training experience that indicates a preferred gender within our industry?
Segregation in the workplace based on gender, gender differences in leadership roles, and wage differences are well documented and previously studied. Workplace discrimination has been identified in research as a primary impediment on gender equality. As such, there’s a growing interest in the challenges women face finding acceptance within the professional community, particularly in male-dominated industries.
One reason the glass ceiling persists is that women receive different developmental experiences during their careers. Yet there seems to be little research on how gender bias in training documents may isolate and limit access for women who pursue careers in male-dominated fields. As researchers, we sometimes try to find the “big” examples of discrimination. But I think we can help to reduce the scope of discrimination and isolation, regardless of the industry, by identifying even the subtlest bias in documents.
As women continue to press against the glass ceiling of inequality, companies must continue to identify opportunities to remove gender barriers from documents and create inclusion and connection for a diverse audience.
Case study: FAA training documents reveal gender bias
I looked at the Federal Aviation Administration’s training documents for flight instructors and students to assess bias. These training documents are available online and are published on a federal website, so they create an interesting study of gender bias on a level that represents the field of aviation federally and is highly visible and accessible. Through analyzing the number of male and female pronouns in these documents, as well as examples and scenarios, implied and blatant gender themes emerged.
In some cases, gender represented factual information about an expert cited in the document. In these references, gender was mentioned as a factual description of the expert. In other examples, pronouns were used to identify the gender of pilots, as well as other aviation careers and job titles outside of aviation. The Helicopter Flying Handbook, for example, uses a female pronoun to describe a ballerina, while the Remote Pilot Guide refers to a football quarterback as being male. The trainings also refer to pilot instructors as “salesmen” and note that sometimes pilots try to be the “nice guy.”
Some of the gender references provided examples of bias by assuming the student was exclusively male. For example, one scenario in the FAA Risk Management Handbook published in 2009 reads: “You are a 32-year-old, 325-hour, non-instrument-rated private pilot. You have about 75 hours on long cross-country flights including one less than three weeks ago. You and your wife are planning to leave after work for a 400 NM (nautical miles) flight to attend your wife’s best friend’s 11:00 a.m. wedding the next day. You will take off about 30 minutes before sunset.”
In this reference, the implication is that the student would have a wife, and this is not isolated. The document used several other examples of the student being married to a woman, while it included no scenarios that implied the student would have a husband. The above example goes on to suggest that the pilot buy a plane ticket for his wife in order to reduce the stress of potentially missing the wedding due to flying conditions. This not only implies the student is male, but also that his wife is unreasonable and would not be able to prioritize safety over a wedding.
In another example, the student’s wife needs to use the restroom and refuses to use the portable urinal that pilots sometimes carry. The Risk Management Handbook reads: “You are tired and hungry, and your wife has mentioned a need for a bathroom, and she is not about to use one of those plastic things you carry in your flight bag.” This is a similar implication. In both cases, the pilot must choose between safety or possibly disappointing his wife.
“He” as a default pronoun
Overall, I found 1,720 references to gender in the documents. Male nouns and pronouns were identified 987 times, while female nouns and pronouns 733 times. The attempts to be gender inclusive in the texts show that the writers did consider women as readers. Overall, around 73 percent of gender references were coded as gender neutral due to the use of subjective, objective, or possessive double pronouns that were gender inclusive, such as he or she, his or her, and himself or herself. But around 27 percent were coded gender specific and represented bias in the texts.
Some would argue that the common use of the pronoun “he” as a universal pronoun could lead to this, but many experts argue that “he” is not universal because of the confusion and isolation it creates. In any document, the overwhelming consensus by experts is that writers should reword phrases so the plural third-person pronoun “they” can be used. If single pronouns must be used, experts recommend using male and female (he or she, him or her).
Gender bias persists over time
Initially, I thought I would see a decrease in gender pronouns in documents created recently, but that was not the case. I found that gender bias was sporadic and, in some cases, more blatant in documents published within the last 10 years.
Across the span of the 76 years these technical training documents represent, gender bias can be identified in the majority of training texts, including those published in 2017. All of these examples indicate clear, consistent, and stereotypical frames for the gender of pilots (and sometimes the gender of other aviation professions). The emphasis on “he” pronouns creates a set of technical documents that assume pilot instructors and students are, by default, male. There are some attempts to be gender-inclusive, but stereotypes still emerge — sometimes in the same document and even within the same example.
Solutions for on-boarding isolation
Communication experts agree on simple solutions that companies striving for diversity and inclusion can implement immediately. Primarily, consensus suggests using double-pronouns (his or her) consistently throughout a document to substitute for the generic use of male pronouns.
Experts also recognize that there is not a gender-neutral, third-person, singular pronoun in the English language, so many recommend using “they” as an alternative to “he” and the clunky “he/she” alternatives. However, other formal writing scholars and style guides do not recommend this and have specific guidelines around when “they” can be acceptable as a singular pronoun, such as when the person being discussed does not identify as “he” or “she” or when someone would like to remain anonymous. Based on the current recommendations of English and communication experts, the use of editing and revising in order to create sentences that do not require a gender-neutral, third-person, singular pronoun is the ideal way to create gender-inclusive technical documents.
When a term is necessary, scholars agree that combining both singular pronouns (she or he, her or his) is the most acceptable way to remove gender bias from documents. Examples that include a husband or wife can be easily changed to a friend or sibling to eliminate the need to identify the gender of the reader. In other words, the above example would be more inclusive and create the same outcome if the pilot were taking a friend to the beach, rather than taking a wife to a wedding.
The bottom line
Looking at training documents in the aviation field that are published on a federal website furthers the understanding of how training documents may reflect and/or perpetuate stereotypical attitudes toward gender within an industry. Professionals who create training documents that represent a company should strive to critically analyze language that can isolate and create separation within their own industry. The ability to identify and remove gender bias from documents will help create accessible learning for any student, regardless of gender, and indicate the company wants to hire qualified candidates who mirror the diversity found in their customer base.
William Hart is an award-winning Region Training Manager for AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the US. Previously, he worked in Learning and Development for Home Depot. He received his bachelors degree in Speech from Georgia State University and his masters degree in Technical Communication from Minnesota State University-Mankato. His research focuses on the intersection of associate development and corporate strategy. Currently, he resides in Phoenix, AZ with his family including his son, Deacon, and his two dogs,Tollen and Lucas.