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Don't Assume I'm a Guy: Gender-Neutral Marketing

Don't Assume I'm a Guy: Gender-Neutral Marketing

How do you like it when someone assumes who you are on the basis of what you do or where you work? To me, it is a deal-breaker, and when you approach me with your cold-call e-mail to offer your services while assuming I’m a man because I am a web developer, you will never get my business, even if you promise me sugar plums and cotton candy for life.

Let me explain.

I receive many cold-call e-mail inquiries that offer services related to web development and design, from broken link checking services (please stop, I do that myself) to services that offer content farming (go away!) and target audience research (hmmm, interesting). None of them actually check out my business and who I am, and I don’t blame them for that. Who has the time? And when you’re just starting out, your marketing strategy is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I understand.

[Related: Back to Basics: Do You Know Your Mission and Vision?]

But that’s not an excuse not to make an effort to phrase your e-mail asks as gender neutral and with as little sexism as possible. It isn’t hard. Just replace the “guys” with “you.” How hard is that? Very, it seems.

Every other e-mail I receive addresses me as a guy. I realize that “you guys” has become a colloquial way to address a crowd that comprises women and men. But it is insensitive and lazy. When you want to directly address someone and sell your services, don’t assume I am a guy.

The other day, I decided to write back. I received an e-mail from Shaw, who pitched his solo entrepreneur service to help business owners find their ideal target audience (nice idea, by the way, Shaw).

He sent out this blanket e-mail ask:

Hey guys, I just came across 'content design' through 'internet directories' and I really love what you guys have been going on. Congrats on having an awesome website! My name’s Shaw and I’m the founder of […]. We specialize in growing the number of new clients for agencies just like 'content design,' which is very similar to my other clients, so I thought I’d reach out.

I PROMISE you, we can double, if not triple, the number of new leads you guys generate every month. I’d like to find out more about what you’re currently doing to generate fresh leads and close new clients. If you're ready to start getting more clients, I'd love to hop on a quick call with you. :) I'm also happy to answer any questions you may have. Thanks, have an awesome day!

Way to go, Shaw. So, I wrote back:

Thank you ma’am, but I’m not a guy as you assume. Have a nice day.

To which he replied (he obviously didn’t catch my sarcasm):

Thank you, but I am not a ma'am as you assume.

Okay, Shaw, maybe now you know how it feels. When you cold-call potential customers, it's important to be sensitive to these things. Will Shaw change his approach in the future? I don’t hold my breath, but maybe he’ll remember this little exchange when he types "guys" the next time. I assume that young Shaw has not yet experienced, if he ever will, how it feels to be overlooked, dismissed, or not really taken seriously as an entrepreneur because of gender. I have.

“What excludes us is the culture of tech. It’s young and it’s male; it’s very fast and a little reckless,” writes Angela DeLillio Galper, a tech professional with decades of experience under her belt. “For all their innovation, brash and headstrong young leaders sometimes dismiss ideas that run counter to the culture. And though most tech companies earnestly struggle to be inclusive, we never imagined how much that culture would one day sideline [women].”

But we’re all making the same mistake, even women. How many times have you approached a group of women, or comprised of mostly women, with a cheerful “Hey guys!” You may believe that the phrase has morphed into a gender-neutral informal greeting. It has not.

[Related: Leading from the Next Generation: Four Simple Ways to Stop Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace]

"But Tekla," you mumble to yourself, "don’t be so sensitive. Being in business is tough. Grow a pair." To which I reply: "Just because we all do it, doesn’t make it right." I believe this is not just a mundane linguistic matter, but a matter of perception, a symptom of a cultural norm that holds back many women in tech.

“There are a lot of guys in tech, and ‘guys’ is used all the time in my work and social environments by both men and women, but since it doesn't resonate with me anymore, I do feel like I'm not part of the group,” Amy Chong, a 29-year-old user-experience researcher in San Francisco, is quoted in The Atlantic.

The article goes on to say that “in some workplaces, people have used technology to gently push back against the gender-neutral 'guys' so that they themselves don’t have to speak up. A group of government employees wrote a custom response for the messaging app Slack that would have a bot ask questions like 'Did you mean friends?'or 'Did you mean you all?' whenever a user wrote 'Hey guys.' A Spotify employee embraced the idea, and the professional network Ladies Get Paid has a similar feature in its Slack group of some 30,000 members.”

In many languages (German and French, for example), pronouns and nouns, singular and plural, all have gender-specific grammatical forms that make addressing a crowd gender-neutral very challenging. English, on the other end, is so much more accommodating. "You" applies to a man, a woman, a group of men, a group of women, or a mix of both. A doctor can be male or female, and doctors can mean groups of men, women, or both.

So, if your hip startup or new business assumes your target audience is male, think again. You’ve already lost half of the potential customers who have tuned out. But if you are sincere and looking for a winning marketing strategy, make an effort to ditch any lazy and inconsiderate ways of addressing your clients in future communications. All you have to do is replace "guys" with "you."

Let’s challenge the male approach as a default. And then, Shaw, I may even consider your services.

[Related: Seven Reasons Your Small Business Is Not Making Enough Money]


Tekla Szymanski founded Content + Design LLC as a one-stop shop for content strategy, web development, and site care for content-driven nonprofit and personal websites that have a mission to share or a story to tell and need a flexible design that adapts to their unique content needs.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.