Women Are Not “Guys” at Work, Are They?

You have read and heard statements like these at work:

"I'll ask the guys on my team to work on that feature."

"We need to get a top-notch guy in here to fill that role."

"Let me know how you guys are doing."

Barbara wrote to ask my opinion on guys used for groups that include women and guy used for an unknown individual. She shared the examples above. 

Lynn Sherk photo
Communication involves both the sender and the receiver of the message. The sender may intend guys to refer to everyone in a group. In fact, guys can mean "members of a group regardless of sex" according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. But the receiver may interpret guys to mean men.

Because guys may miscommunicate or even cause bad feelings depending on the situation, it makes sense to use a different word. Why use a risky word when other words can communicate your meaning safely?  

Alternatives to guys are you, anyone, everybody, team, people, individuals, and all depending on the situation and sentence. "You" can easily replace "You guys" although "you guys" does clearly indicate more than one, which "you" alone does not. 

Yes, I recommend that we cut guys from our written messages when we mean a mixed group or a group of women. And we should not use guy when we mean "someone." Cutting those words from our writing makes sense because other words are more precise. Also, we cannot know whether guys and guy may exclude or offend a reader. For example, a woman in a group of mostly male software engineers or firefighters may feel like a misfit when messages use "you guys." 

Taking that step should be easy, especially since grammar and spelling checkers flag the use of guys and guy. For this blog post, my Microsoft grammar and spelling checker set on Grammar &Style (not Grammar Only) recommended people and person for every guys and guy I used. 

Speech may be more challenging since we don't have a grammar checker to flag words before they come out of our mouths, and the informal "you guys" may be a longstanding habit. If you want to eliminate guys in situations where it may not belong, you might try a sign on the bulletin board above your desk with the reminder "You guys." You can also add a reminder to your smart phone or tablet. 

Does it make sense to avoid using guy and guys in business communication? Yes, it makes sense if the use may offend or leave out someone.

But what about the situation captured in the photo above, with Lynn Sherk and me at Firehouse Coffee in our neighborhood? If the servers had called us "you guys," would we have minded? No, not a bit. 

What is your experience with guy and guys at work? 

Lynn
Syntax Training

24 COMMENTS

  1. There is precedent in many other languages for using a masculine form to refer to a mixed-sex group (e.g., Spanish, Italian).

    However I would tend to agree that in language where gender forms aren’t an issue there’s no real excuse for using ‘guys’.

  2. I think that this veers pretty closely to unnecessary political correctness. We all (women AND men) could be a little less sensitive. Or, sometimes, a lot less sensitive.

    Having said that, for the reasons you note above, I typically use “folks” or “y’all” (though as a Yankee, perhaps that Southern-ist when speaking. I frequently say “guys” as well. In written communication, I don’t think that “you guys” would be appropriate very often at all.

  3. I think you also have to be careful about “folks” in some situations. It seems too informal for some usages. Both President Bush and President Obama have been criticized for using the word when a more formal “people” would have been more appropriate in context, for example, when discussing war.

  4. Just the other day I overheard a manager at my company discussing a visit from the corporate office, and he said “when the big boys come in”. As a woman in a very male-dominated work environment, this doesn’t sit well with me. Honestly, I believe there is still a lot of work to be done to make women feel as comfortable as men in the business world, especially in male-dominated fields like technology and engineering.

  5. In my workplace, the word “heathen” was used disparagingly and in its religious context just yesterday. When I pointed out that that could be threatening or offensive to anyone not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the speaker deflected, saying, “it was only a joke!” (As if that excuse would work for the “n” word!)

    It is long, slow work to purge ourselves of such primitive evil.

  6. > I think you also have to be careful about “folks” in some situations. It seems too informal for some usages.

    I do not think it is more informal then ‘guys’ 😉

  7. Thank you, everyone, for commenting on these ideas. (I won’t say “Thanks, you guys”!)

    I agree with you, Laura and Alex, that “folks” is not suitable for formal communication despite its being gender neutral. “Folks” is folksy. I never use it because it’s not part of my experience, having lived in big cities (New York, Boston, Seattle) all my adult life, where I did not hear it.

    Jason, thanks for your point about other languages. I have heard that Spanish-speaking people now use both terms–for example, “amigos y amigas”–rather than just the masculine form. I do not have expertise in this area though. It’s just something I have heard.

    Bill, thanks for weighing in. At work, it’s often wise to be politically correct because we deal with many people who have sensibilities that are different ours. I am glad you would not use “you guys” in writing.

    “Anonymous,” I appreciate your example of the “big boys” coming in. It’s a great example of language that communicates an underlying assumption.

    Jim, thanks for extending the discussion to include language focused on religious beliefs. “Heathen” is out of line in any business setting.

    Lynn

  8. Lynn, I appreciate your response to Bill’s point about political correctness. To be honest, I don’t really understand why so many people have a problem with the idea; to me, it is simply about working to be inclusive and not offend others. This seems like a good pursuit!

  9. Hi, Lisa Marie. I agree with you. I believe that people sometimes resist changes in language because the changes force us to give up the happy habit of throwing words around freely. But we gain something more profound if we watch our language: the ability to connect with others in ways that make us both feel accepted and respected.

    Lynn

  10. Women are female and men are male. A “guy” is gender based on being male. In the old days it was “guys” and “gals”, which is gender based. Women are not “guys”. Females are lowering themselves to the stature of all men by allowing everyone to refer to them as a “guy”. Women are special with all their unique qualities, God made you that way. I can’t get over mothers calling their children “guys”, when there are boys and girls involved, or referring to senior women in restaurants as “can I get you guys something?”. Women should stand up and not accept being referred to as a “man” any longer. For the restaurant washrooms should be post on the doors, “Guys” and “Guys”?? For all women’s sake, women should not be referred to as “guys” in either spoken or written format!!

  11. Lynn – Thanks so much for this information. My suggestion is to be respectful, take the time and know the group or persons your are addressing.
    If two people – how are you both doing?
    If a group – everyone – it’s very simple.
    I quite dislike be lumped in to the “Guy” slang – How are you guys? What do you Guys think? This is not addressing people to actually receive a reply and hear a reply.
    It’s just something to say: quickly and without regard or respect verbally or in written words. I find the blogging community is using Guy slang to address their readership of mostly women, this action is strange to me as it does not foster the engagement that social media can offer.

  12. In my experience as a women a male dominated field the use of the term ‘guys’ irritates and for me perpetuates the concept that women are the exception rather than the rule in our space. If I were to send a group email to a mixed gender group addressed to ‘Hey Gals’ it would be considered a mistake and solicit comment from the men. I feel that women are expected to quietly tolerate situations that men just wouldn’t. It speaks to the heart of the equality issue, small things do matter. It is the subtleties that occur everyday that confirm women are far from being treated as equals in the corporate environment.

  13. As a woman I hate it when in a mixed group we are addressed as “you guys.” It’s not about political correctness: it’s about being addressed by the wrong gender; it’s about being made linguistically and socially invisible. Why not just say you? When referring to myself and my partner, why not just use our names? Where did this expression come from? I didn’t hear it in the past.
    I agree with the comments of Mike and Kelly – it does matter. Women take a stand.

  14. Hi Lynn,

    In a Business email, if someone addresses a group of people – ‘Hi Guys’, I think it is not appropriate, irrespective of the gender. It is more informal, not respectful. The people who are being addressed would feel bad. I would feel bad if I am addressed so by a co-worker. All, Hello Everyone or Dear All would be more appropriate.

    Rick

  15. Alright. If it’s a mix of men and women, it’s you “guys” did a great job. If it’s group of All women, it’s you “guys” did a great job.

    Time to switch it.

    If it’s a mix of men and women, it’s you “gals” did a great job. If it’s group of All women, it’s you “gals” did a great job.

    Change a social script.

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