Judges in the UK have received an updated version of their “Equal Treatment Bench Book”, 422 pages of guidance that aims to “enable effective communication and suggest steps which should increase participation by all parties” including those “who might be uncertain, fearful or feel unable to participate”. Inevitably, there’s a backlash from those who think it’s “political correctness gone mad” to avoid referring to people as “immigrant” or “transsexual”, or to avoid gender-specific terms like “businessman” or “postman”. Others, meanwhile, simply think that it’s overkill and that instructing judges to “be aware and courteous” should be enough (lancsmarsbar comment). Which seems like a pretty common sense point of view – except that “courteousness” is a shifting concept shaped by time and place, and “awareness” can only exist within the boundaries of your own experience and imagination; Miles’ Law (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) can make it hard to understand the deep nuances of someone else’s experience, however good your intentions, however empathetic and aware you aim to be. You don’t know what you don’t know.

gender equality symbol

I’m writing about this here because I see this challenge also arising among members of the scholarly community, grappling with the focus on diversity and inclusivity, making missteps and finding themselves baffled as to why they are being called out for inappropriate language or behavior. Times are changing; behaviors that used to be “accepted”, or at least ignored / suffered in silence, are now being challenged. Because we know most of the people involved don’t intend to offend or diminish, it can be hard to call these behaviors out face to face, so I’m sharing some examples here along with an explanation – from my point of view, at least — as to why certain behaviors or comments are inappropriate, and what an alternative phrasing or approach might be. I am not positioning men as offenders and women as offended; this is about education and healing, rather than denunciation, blaming or shaming. Please bear that in mind as you read and if you comment.


  • Calling it out: When you make too much of a big deal of your diversity and inclusivity efforts, you risk undermining the confidence and credibility of those who you’ve brought in under that banner. Who wants to be on a stage only because they are the token young person / woman / non-white person / non-straight person? Who wants to be introduced thus: “And, not only for the sake of diversity, Charlie Rapple joins us.” (True story). Would you joke that local strip clubs will benefit from the many male conference delegates you’ve brought to town? If not, why would you joke that local shoe shops will be delighted that your diversity efforts have brought so many more women? (True story #2).
  • Spelling it out: Yes, it’s great that conference organizers are taking care to diversify their speakers. But over-signalling that effort diminishes the value of a speaker and her content, implying that at least part of the reason she’s there is because the organizers have a quota to meet. I’m all for quotas and leveling the playing field in that way, but do it subtly: public speaking can be a daunting experience. You’re already being singled out, you’re already having to win the attention and support of an audience. Opening a session by drawing attention to someone’s diversity undermines any sense of belonging, and reinforces the very barriers we’re trying to break down.
  • Stamping it out: Do continue to diversify your speakers (or editorial board members, or employees, or, or, or); don’t put an individual in the position of feeling that such efforts are the only reason they have got the gig. There’s a time and a place for jokes based on stereotypes: they’re probably better avoided when you’re otherwise trying to indicate that you value diversity.

Being behind the curve when it comes to manners

  • Calling it out: I propose our metaphorical etiquette guides need updating in three areas: Ladies, Kissing, and Commenting On Appearance.
  • Spelling it out:
    • First, let’s talk about “ladies” as a term to refer to women. This is a generational one, I think, and possibly a US—UK thing. You might think it’s polite. I think it’s patronizing. True story #3: when a friend joined an otherwise all-male company board, one of the board members began apologizing “to the ladies present” whenever letting loose a swear word. When you treat women differently in this way, you imply that they shouldn’t be present, as if they should be in the drawing room not the board room. I genuinely can’t think of a single scholarly information world context in which it’s necessary to treat women differently, or to specify their gender when referring to them. (And oh, my, in case it’s really necessary to say this, too, “girl” is really, really off limits for describing a grown woman. Another friend describes a senior colleague greeting her, after the faculty meeting to vote on her tenure and promotion, with “There’s the girl I just gave tenure!” Diminishing her and reiterating his own power in seven hasty words.)
    • Kissing: I appreciate that this one is a matter of individual taste, so I’m not so much proscribing kissing, as just mentioning that I am not a fan of the business kiss. Having a different way of greeting women and men reinforces a distinction. A distinction that implies the women are there for a different purpose than the men, and that ultimately harks back to a world where women were only invited into business contexts for decoration and entertainment.
    • Commenting on appearance: By the same token, telling women how attractive they look is at best unnecessary and at worst inappropriate in a business context. Your intention is most likely to be kind rather than creepy, but many women feel awkward and at a disadvantage to have their appearance be the topic of conversation in a business setting.
  • Stamping it out:
    • Ladies: A friend drew my attention to this excellent guidance: “There are three times when the use of “lady” is unobjectionable: when referring to a female member of the House of Lords; when you want to convey a sense of breeding, delicacy, or graciousness (“she’s a real lady”); when it is paired with “gentleman” (“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen”). According to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, “Except in wry contexts, lady is obsolete for woman, just as gentleman is obsolete for man.” The National Public Radio Style Guide is more curt: “Do not use as a synonym for woman.” On a related note, I’d suggest generally avoiding terms that emphasize gender differences, or are unnecessarily gender-specific (“manpower” is pretty much interchangeable with “capacity”; you can “staff” your exhibition booth rather than “manning” it; a meeting or company can just have a “chair”; it’s not particularly unwieldy to say “he or she”, or just “they” — I’m a grammar pedant myself, but perfectly happy to sacrifice pedantry in the cause of equality). I’m no saint here — it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve stopped saying that I “manned up” to a difficult challenge (I’m back to “stepping up”). But I’m trying to pay more attention to my vocabulary and idioms. They may seem harmless, they may in the moment hold no particular intent, but they are factors in the unconscious bias against women and the conditioning of women to see men as better or more important.
    • Kissing: Give me a handshake any day. If we’re feeling particularly chummy, a handshake and a clasp of the shoulder. Friendship, not gender, should be the differentiator in how you greet people. If you wouldn’t expect the men in the room to submit themselves to a kiss, why should the women?
    • Appearance: If you’d say it to a man (nice haircut! new glasses! great shoes!) it’s OK, but describing the woman herself (stunning! you look wonderful! you get younger every time I see you!) is best avoided. Indeed, why not just avoid comments about anyone’s appearance? Hint from a Brit: if you’re stuck for small talk, try the weather.

Failing to question the status quo

  • Calling it out: How often have you heard people defend their attitude with “I don’t see gender, color, ethnicity — I’ll judge you by what you do”?
  • Spelling it out: But the framework for that judgement is defined by the status quo — by the resources, abilities and experiences of (typically) older wealthier white men. Someone from a less advantaged background may have different definitions of “success” or different objectives for “performance”; their experience / training / life skills may lend themselves to excel in ways other than what constitutes “performance” within the status quo. Personally, for example, I find it harder than some of my fellow Chefs to write on a regular schedule for the Scholarly Kitchen. I think this is partly about my different work / life circumstances (a company director, traveling one week in four, and mother of a young child; doing 10 hours in the office followed by a “second shift” of childcare, housework and / or cooking) (and doing all of this happily…just not finding the 10 hours per month I would need to blog more regularly!). It’s also about imposter syndrome (less confident putting forward my opinions on such a range of topics, more worried about finding references to back up my arguments, taking forever to write and edit each post because I’m anxious about what the response will be given the, at best, robust and, at worst, abrasive nature of many Kitchen comments). What I’m trying to illustrate is that, while diversity initiatives need to be more than just window dressing (if you bring in a more diverse range of bloggers, you want to hear those perspectives as frequently as possible), judging diversity efforts by the parameters of existing “performance” is immediately setting them up to fail. We must be ready to question the status quo and adjust our requirements if we want to diversify our workforce.
  • Stamping it out: “we welcome X” is not the same as “we actively facilitate X”, if the odds are stacked against X. We could all usefully question (or at the very least, acknowledge) our “privilege” more and try to understand how it may be preventing us from understanding someone else’s challenges, and helping them confront or rise above them.

Taking personal responsibility

In summary, it is incumbent on each of us, regardless of age / gender / ethnicity and our own challenges, to take a more personal approach to inclusivity. In addition to the thoughts above, this might mean:

  1. Testing / exploring your gender bias: a quick YouTube video and a 10-minute survey-style test
  2. Challenging bias — swiftly, gently — wherever you see it, whether or not you’re involved (being careful to assume good intentions. “I’m not sure you realized, but …”; “you probably didn’t mean it that way, but …”)
  3. Not denying people their experience. If you don’t “agree” with all this stuff, that may say as much about you as it does about those experiencing it. Don’t tell people they “didn’t get it” or “misunderstood” or “missed the joke” or “imagined it”.
  4. Tracking your day-to-day use of language and your day-to-day behaviors. How often do you refer to a mixed gender team as “guys”? Do you default to male pronouns when talking generically about scientists or business leaders? Do you comment on women’s appearance more than men’s? Are you a little old-fashioned or over-familiar in your tone with women? None of these are necessarily offensive, by themselves, but they reflect a world in which male norms are dominant, and it’s worth thinking about how that makes our workplaces look from the perspective of young women joining our community.
  5. If you’re in publishing, fill in the Workplace Equity Project survey, which is trying to capture and build up trend data around workplace experiences, practices and opportunities in the scholarly publishing industry.

In conclusion

I don’t want to open up floodgates for expressing anger at people who aren’t intending their words or actions to exclude or discriminate. My goal is to encourage us all to think harder about whether we are doing the best we can to recognize and stamp out bias. As Qantas put it, when challenged on their own new guidance to employees about gender-inappropriate language, “We are simply asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and look at what they say from another perspective — and be open to changing what they have always thought is ‘normal’, respectful and appropriate to say.” (My emphasis).

Acknowledgements: Miles’ Law applies to me, too; I apologize to those reading this who feel frustrated that I’ve misrepresented or ignored their demographic or point of view. I’ve written this quickly, and tried not to overthink it, because I know if I tried to research and write it “properly”, I would not write it at all for fear of offending people or getting things “wrong”. I know there are other (worse) battles being fought (or not even being fought yet). But I still wanted to write about this one, because it’s still not won. Thank you to Alison Mudditt for “breaking the silence“, and to Angela Cochran, Bernie Folan, Tracy Gardner, Sîan Harris, Ginny Hendricks, Leon Heward-Mills, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Liz Marchant, Louise Russell, Alice Meadows, Kirsty Meddings, Ann Michael, Alison Mitchell, Karin Wulf, and others who have encouraged and inspired me. I truly hope this is a useful rather than a controversial post.

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple

Charlie Rapple is co-founder of Kudos, which helps researchers, publishers and institutions to maximize the reach and impact of their research. She is also Honorary Secretary of UKSG and Associate Editor of Learned Publishing.

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61 Thoughts on "Calling It Out, Spelling It Out, Stamping It Out: Recognizing and Avoiding Bias"

Charlie, a terrific –and timely–post! Love this conclusion: “My goal is to encourage us all to think harder about whether we are doing the best we can to recognize and stamp out bias.” Bias is so pervasive; the air around us can be difficult to see even as we breathe it. But we can stop, think, recognize and act. Thanks so much for writing this, and for bringing along a community as you did so.

I am so relieved that I have never been “business-kissed” — I had no idea this was a thing, and I’m shocked that this is considered to be polite/appropriate!

Ha! It’s not particularly awful in and of itself. It’s the distinction being made between men and women that makes me question it!

Ahhh, then you are lucky you haven’t been to a meeting with people from many different European countries and had to work out how many times you should kiss each one! See France for example https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/kMwiMqosbWLD9aE_SkbXCwL2HHPzNKabkPuBO70Z-j8f_iWR-sbU7ljl6FCq8lz896Kkbc3LOkttI6DGvCSUmUq7NmnOlk50N5dgn2TzkGTUkB_1FtDKSvyn6-T6cQ

(I agree with Charlie’s point that it makes a distinction between men and women, and my own reasons for normally getting it wrong!)

This is a great and much-needed post Charlie. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another, been on both sides of the situation – inadvertently giving offense and being on the receiving end of someone else’s unwelcome comments or behavior, and not being sure how to tackle either one. It’s fantastically helpful to have the issues specifically called out here, alongside advice on how we can all play a part in stamping them out. Thank you!

Yes, I’ve heard lots of stories from people worried that they’d given offence without intending to, which made me think such a post could help!

Thank you, Charlie! Well said. I’ve been on both sides of awkward conversations. It’s all about empathy and actually thinking about what we say.

Spot on Charlie (hi!). All of it, but this, especially: ‘We must be ready to question the status quo and adjust our requirements if we want to diversify our workforce.’

Hi Sybille – thanks for sharing that example – I am certainly grateful that my first language is one that doesn’t apply gender to common nouns. The German banks / forms example is a great instance where the easy and so-called common sense option is prevailing, without thought being given to the subtext conveyed in doing so.

Thank you for the excellent post, Charlie, and for the unfortunately familiar examples. I hope that someone can write a followup SK post addressing similar issues for people of color, those from other countries, and people who are LGBTQ, in accordance with Miles’ Law. Plenty of cringe-worthy moments there, even for people who aren’t sitting there.

Thank you, Margaret. Personally, I feel awkward trying to comment on issues of which I don’t have first-hand experience. I worry that I will misrepresent how people feel or what could / should be done, and do more harm than good. But you’re making me think about how to have the courage to move past that, and how to find a way to better understand and give voice to other groups. (Plus I know other SK writers will be addressing this subject and may cover these alternative perspectives).

Hi Margaret, thanks for this thoughtful comment here, fully agree with idea of bringing in other wider perspectives and experiences from the ethnicity and LGBTQ+ readers as well, I was only talking about this the other day with a good friend, I’m hoping they will write up and share their perspectives in a really great post, that would help make us all more aware of real experiences and challenges faced.

Another insightful post on how we can all think more carefully about our language and actions. Thank you, Charlie! Additional random reactions: (1) Am I alone in thinking it would be wonderful to see more than one man commenting on this post? (2) I’m laughing at myself because I thought you were a man until I got the part of your post where you talk about being a mother. Assumptions will always get the best of us! (3) I am also very relieved and happy to have never been business-kissed.

I’m glad to see some more men have commented since your comment. (I’m interested that you couldn’t “tell” that I was a woman – and pleased about that as hopefully it means the tone of the post was constructive and thoughtful rather than any kind of personal rant!)

Great post Charlie. Your list of do’s and don’ts are good ones, but lest someone worry about following the longer list, here are three simple rules I follow: 1. Don’t ever make anyone feel different (even with affection – it stings) 2. Don’t make personal comments, 3. Don’t joke or tease. It really is that simple. I realize some people may need to resort to joking in certain situations (I worked with a colleague who did this when he was nervous), and in that case, either make yourself the focus of your jokes or don’t joke about people at all.

Thank you, Charlie. Superb piece. I’ve been guilty of giving a “business kiss”, and your piece has taught me a lesson. I like to think I’ve never been guilty of the other sins you’ve outlined, but am genuinely not certain whether that’s true or not.

Thanks for this good read. It made me realise how often I say ‘Guys’! A great lesson in how to hear the things we say with fresh ears.

Thanks for writing this, Charlie. It’s much needed, especially when it can be really daunting to put your head above the parapet and risk being shot down. My colleague Navjoyt Ladher and I wrote something about diversity efforts in clinical research and scholarly publishing last week that might be of interest: http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2018/03/08/theodora-bloom-and-navjoyt-ladher-diversity-in-clinical-research-and-scholarly-publishing/
I’ll sign off with my full name, to avoid more gender confusion!

Thanks, Theo! And for the link to your paper – I was thinking of a follow up post about industry initiatives / efforts at the organizational level, and you’ve rounded up a good number. (Horrified by that Daily Mail headline about Hodgkin!)

Well written and thought provoking (in a good way). Thanks! Your thoughts on questioning the status-quo particularly resonated with me. I tried the gender bias survey test you linked to and got “slight automatic association for Male with Liberal Arts and Female with Science” – if anything the opposite of what I expected! Maybe this is because I’m female and I work in science, so connect those concepts that way. Which would just highlight the importance we place on people “like us”.

Charlie, This is a fantastic post! Thank you for your honesty and bravery in calling it out, spelling it out, and stamping it out! I appreciate your goal “to encourage us all to think harder about whether we are doing the best we can to recognize and stamp out bias” and will give second thought to my own use of certain terms.

Thanks for this post Charlie! I’d love to see the schol comms community put aside grammatical purity and push hard for the adoption of ‘they’ for persons of unknown gender. This is just straight good practice in decision letters, as it forces editors away from referring to anonymous reviewers as ‘he’ and thus removes any inadvertent clues about their identity.

Tim, I totally agree with your point.
If referring to a person who needs to be anonymous, or is unclear from their name then “they / them / their / themselves” should become the generic pronouns to use, unless situation allows reference to their name.

So much of this post has resonated with me and I really appreciate you talking about these topics. Especially those topics that come up in the section entitled – FAILING TO QUESTION THE STATUS QUO, Spelling it out. This post has also made me rethink certain phrases which I will now be trying to remove from my vocabulary!

Super stuff Charlie. From the heart and from experience.

Going to challenge you too, on your grammar pedantry. How much of this is an ‘educational’ bias. Not everyone has the educational background, or had the educational opportunity, to be grammatically correct. Judging on grammar is not always a good thing.

And I’m not even sure grammar, English grammar anyway, is a universal. My wife and I, from different parts of England, have different grammars. If we understand each other then does it really matter?

But nitpicking. Really important post.

Fantastic and useful article, thank you.

My own confession, until a few years ago, I would often, though not deliberately, refer to women who were younger than me as ‘girl’ in the third person (if you speak to the girl over there she will be able to help you). Of course, I never did the same for men.

Thanks for your candour, Chris. I think it’s so valuable for us all to share examples of our own behaviours, past or present – an amnesty, I suppose. (And on a side note, I welcome questions from and discussion with anyone who is uncertain about certain language or behaviours!)

Charlie, thank you for writing this well though through article. It is important to raise these subjects and feels a shame that it is labelled as Controversial Topics.

For my personal ethics it is important “to be good to one another”. In the sense that, irrespective of gender, colour, social standing etc. the person that you are referring to in any given situation is valid, and should be treated with respect and dignity, even if you don’t personally agree with them (an important point). Diversity is important but doesn’t need labeling. I always go into a situation thinking how would I want to referred to, or spoken to on that subject.

I also normally have a quiet word with anyone that I talk to that does use inapporiate terms, suggesting that they could rephrase statements a little better to not potentially cause offence, normally works well. We must also remember none of us get it right 100% of the time, and even within communities there is still sometimes wide disagreement to the correct terminologies to use.

I believe your article gets close to, but without saying, all of our characteristics are not binary, there is no “only this or that” and all of us are effectively at varying points on a scale with a sliding bar for each. I believe this, do the readers here think similarly? If so, then it is my belief also, that none of these characteristics should ever be grouped to use as general greetings or referral statements to people, as irrespective of intention is going to miss, or irritate someone. For example, I myself am fluid between work and social situations with gender and therefore the person addressing the group has no idea the actual characteristics of the group, as truths aren’t always observable, and if referred to as “you guys” get annoyed, even though I currently present as male at work.

Context: I work in the UK for a scholarly publishing organisation. I see myself as a part of the LGBTQ+ community and becoming increasingly active in supporting rights and well-being. Personally, I am starting on the journey to a position on the gender scale that I perceive myself to be, not a binary label.

Thanks PA, for commenting. I think your comments are super fresh and your voice needs to be amplified. One project to look at could be the Workplace Equity Project (I’m on the board and don’t feel bad promoting it qs SSP is also one of the main supporters). If you feel like it please contact me via ginny@crossref,org 😉

Thank you, PA – yes, I’m very much with you on the “nothing is binary; everything is a sliding scale” point and I fully agree that “what you see isn’t always what you get” and that’s another reason why we need to try and avoid binary terms in our professional language. If you would be interested to share any more thoughts around this, I would love to help amplify the LGBTQ+ voice of the scholarly info community – e.g. to help show others in our community where we could be better at providing active support (ping me at charlie.a.rapple@growkudos.com if you’d like to share more thoughts, anonymously if you prefer). Good luck on your journey.

Thanks Charlie for taking the time to write and share … the topic and posts (Alison and Betsy’s too) are certainly thought provoking, creating healthy and open discussion, and raising awareness on a set of complex issues, example by example, as painful and awkward as they may be to share or hear, it does help the community as a whole be more aware and cognizant.

I’m pleased to see SSP and TSK making these issues a priority on the agenda.

The IAT test was also useful to take.

Look forward to the continued discussion, development, improvement and healing.

Thanks, Adrian! And for the reminder about Betsy’s post, which I admit I had missed somehow. It’s a great post that flags up another are of potential bias (against early career people) to be aware of, and has some important ideas for mitigating against that and hearing those voices more strongly. For anyone else who missed it: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/03/01/guest-post-finding-voice-scholarly-kitchen-educational-resource/ (Thanks, Betsy!)

Very happy to see this post. We must listen, learn and change. Otherwise, there is stasis. I truly hope organizations think creatively and in a mission-driven way about recruitment, onboarding, and progression in terms of hiring diverse talent. Especially progression as in some instances, greater time and effort will be needed for new hires. We are not starting from an equal playing field in terms of experience and contacts in many cases.

In short, money where the mouth is.

What a refreshing place scholarly comms feels lately!

Thanks Bernie! Yes, exactly – the playing field is not level, and we can be much more active in levelling it, and accepting that may involve some reconsideration of past norms.

Charlie, excellent job on not just summarising the issue, but picking out examples that literally must have heard, seen experienced and/or cringed at. If we can spread awareness in the scholarly research community of this type of attitude, that it’s time is past (and why!), this will be an even better industry in which to work. Efforts like yours ensure the arrival of that time will be sooner.

Thank you,


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