Gendered Language as a Software Engineer

Imagine a (highly generalized) pair programming situation where two engineers, a man and a woman, are talking about specific subjects:

When pairing partner makes a mistake
Men: That’s not right, I’ll show you.
Women: I do it a slightly different way. (explains it)

Talking about achievements
Men: I wrote the best ruby router gem.
Women: We wrote a great gem back in the day! (or) I’m very proud of this gem, it was great in this way. We still have work to do on this other thing.

Shit talking a colleague rage-quitting
Men: He totally hates it and he’s leaving.
Women: I heard that he’s leaving, not sure. I guess he wasn’t happy? (gets more information from colleague on what was going on)

Talking through architecture choices
Men: Which is the best?
Women: I can see it this way, or that way. I prefer this way because of xyz. We can try that other way if you really think so.

Now, I’m not pushing either. I personally strive to put myself halfway between them, direct but informative, and building relationship. I also (subconsciously) try to match the way the other person is talking. I was told by a MAANG recruiter to use “I” more. “Women don’t use I. That’s a problem in these interviews.” She was mutually acknowledging and propping me up so I could play “on the level playing field.”

As a listener, you may prefer the man’s conversation style. It’s refreshing in a busy atmosphere to have decisiveness and direction. In this example at least, that style is leaving information out that you get in the women’s conversation. You’re also not building the relationship.

I was in diverse engineering group (in other words: had great women in leadership) and tried very hard to bridge the communication gap. We went with these pointers:

  • No ego. Leave ego at the door
  • Every senior engineer would be able to do a pros and cons list espousing the other argument and side.
  • Rise up the lowest boat: work with your team. Mentoring is a strength.


There’s more on this topic: Language & Gender on Wikipedia.

Robin Lakoff’s 1973 Language & Women’s Place. I was taught this in college, and it’s fascinating and largely assumed so much I had a hard time finding it again (!) Excerpt below.

AI & Gendered Language
Food for thought: how is our use of AI going to shift this? Will it create a new language between those (hopefully) or bias men’s speak (what will probably happen).

Lakoff Exerpt
Lakoff proposes that women’s speech can be distinguished from that of men in a number of ways (part of gender deficit model), including:

  • Hedges: Phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”
  • Empty adjectives: “divine”, “adorable”, “gorgeous”
  • Super-polite forms: “Would you mind…” “…if it’s not too much to ask” “Is it okay if…?”
  • Apologize more: “I’m sorry, but I think that…”
  • Speak less frequently
  • Avoid curse language or expletives
  • Tag questions: “You don’t mind eating this, do you?”.
  • Hyper-correct grammar and pronunciation: Use of prestige grammar and clear articulation
  • Indirect requests: “Wow, I’m so thirsty.” – really asking for a drink
  • Speak in italics: Use tone to emphasise certain words, e.g., “so”, “very”, “quite” – interesting in how language changes affect leadership styles – democratic vs. autocratic

There’s a huge intersection of immigration status, race, etc also moves toward a more egalitarian conversational style and away from the autocratic, directive style. I’ve had great success with international engineering groups having a far more “even playing ground” as it goes with conversational styles.

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