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‘Brothers,’ ‘sisters,’ ‘family’ and beyond: Why language matters

If we use language that excludes others, that is a choice – and there is a message in that, whether it is intended or not

Firefighters walking by fire engine

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When I talk to firefighters about using inclusive language at work, they sometimes give me that look. “Oh, come on,” they’re saying, either explicitly or implicitly. “It’s just tradition. Calling someone a fireman is inclusive. Get over yourself.”

I thought of these encounters after reading a column that used the word “brothers” throughout – no references to “sisters” or sisterhood. Friends from the fire service started reaching out to me.

One person wrote, “At one time in [the author’s] career, I am sure he worked with a female who is his ‘sister’ in the fire service. Just like if he had a sister in his immediate family, he would call her his sister, not his brother.”

Another said, “Even retired and going to funerals, I am still invisible. Sad – always outside looking in.”

People will tell me: We don’t mean anything by it. There’s no intention to exclude anyone. It’s tradition. Habit. You can be one of the “brothers.”

But it would never work the other way. Men would never tolerate being a member of a group where they were addressed as “ladies” or “women” or told to be proud of being part of the “sisterhood.” In fact, in some groups (think military boot camp until very recently), such forms of address toward men would be intended and interpreted as insults.

If you doubt this, consider how “stewardesses” became “flight attendants” virtually overnight, and for one reason: Men were now being hired into those positions. It was a fairly seamless transition and one that suited pretty much everyone. And if someone occasionally slipped and called a female flight attendant a stewardess, no one got too upset about that. The same way that the dropping of an occasional “brotherhood” or “fireman” into casual conversation is not going to upset anyone terribly.

But in a professional setting where people are writing articles or speaking at public forums or teaching classes, it matters. Because using language that specifically excludes others is inaccurate, unprofessional, and perhaps most importantly, disrespectful. And it really doesn’t matter what the intention is behind it. The effect is the critical thing.

Courts have weighed in on intention versus effect when it comes to language. In a racial discrimination case initiated in the 1990s in private industry, part of the evidence presented was that a supervisor used the term “boy” when addressing an adult African American man at work. The supervisor claimed he had no ill intent in doing so; the other man saw it very differently. Ultimately, the courts found in favor of the plaintiff because of the effect the use of the word had in historical context, regardless of any stated intention.

What’s more, there are many good alternatives out there. A brotherhood can be a family or a crew or a team. Firemen have always been firefighters, at least since the International Association of Fire Fighters formed in 1918.

One woman commented, “My first Sub Officer and Station Officer always treated me as one of the Watch; I was their sister!! Twenty-one years in the job and I had the privilege of working with a few brothers who saw me as their sister and a lot more who did not and resented me being there. This is 2023; sisters were doing this job in World War II. We are as important as all the brothers and just as proud of what we’ve done.”

Another simply said, “When I feel seen, I feel valued. And that includes the language people use.”

Language is a choice. We have control over the words we use. If we use language that excludes others, that is a choice. And there is a message in that, whether it is consciously intended or not.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.