Women are frequently devaluing what they have to say by using words that systematically undermine their competence or the validity of their arguments and opinions. Ignore the overgeneralisation, we all know women who successfully sidestep this trap, but as much as I hate to say it, gender-biased words and self-sabotaging language is alive and well.
I’ll assume we have all already read and pondered at least one article highlighting those words that spring from an unconscious habit and sneak into our statements, requests, and thoughts to soften them. It’s a calibration of language to the female image as the weaker sex but its bullsh*t, and it’s a pet hate of mine that I’m forever calling out.
Gender-biased words we all know but still use
The unnecessary ‘just’ that communicates a lack of confidence.
The ‘I’m sorry’ when you literally have nothing to apologise for.
And my personal trio of oft-used favourites; ‘I feel,’ ‘I believe’ and ‘I think.’ I’m known as a forthright individual amongst any grouping and yet when I speak … “I think the options have been well considered.”
Can I not?
And then there’s the return serve.
The ‘Female insert-any-job-here’ that undermines a woman’s achievement.
The affectionate ‘vivacious’ that offers praise for behaviour that men find non-threatening.
The coveted ‘dedicated’ that emphasises effort, not an accomplishment. It took me a long time to find the catch in this one because I want to be dedicated. But I have achieved more than an adjective.
The list goes on. Women are powerful but frequently our language is not. And the words used to describe women is less so.
Rethink using these three terms right now
The above are the gender-biased traps you know well. However, there are other phrases out there that are worth dropping because on examination they feed the same subtle bias against women.
– Career Woman. Full disclaimer, I used this phrase to describe myself at least twice last week and several times the week before. You could call it a habit but it’s worse than that. You see I’ve bought into the glamourised notion of powerful women charging at her career with single-minded tenacity that likens her to a warrior.
Using the term career woman is the palatable way to position yourself as a female who is focussed on progressing her career. But this is clearly patronising. Guess what a career man is? Oh wait, there is no career man, just a man who works. A career woman is a term that leads you to believe you will skip the negative connotations of being intense, competitive, or assertive but anyone who wants to get ahead is going to have to be intense, competitive, or assertive. Hashtag double standards.
The sad thing is I probably would never have started using career woman if I didn’t believe I had to justify the determined ambition I have for my career. And now I’m attached to the term. Ultimately the term “career women” does nothing to address the root problem where those behaviours that men are praised for, women are frequently rebuked for. The term is effectively saying the same thing, and I can’t address the gender-bias without shedding the language that props it up too.
– Brilliant. And Genius. This one strongly smacks of male chauvinism. How so? Is the brilliant professor a male or a female? Ok, poor choice of profession because we all know most professors are male not female. Plug in almost any profession and you find you need to add female to be clear on when you are actually talking about a female. It’s not until you choose a strongly female-biased profession like nursing that you get the opposite. Who is brilliant now? So we have a gender issue with our professions. Different issue, right? Wrong.
The terms brilliant and genius are more frequently used to describe men and people working in male-dominated fields. Check out this sobering read by Live Science.
Simply put those with brilliance and genius are considered to have an innate intellectual talent that cannot be accomplished through experience, and that quality is culturally linked to men but the converse is linked to women. Women gain their smarts by being hard-working subtly suggesting they start lower on the totem pole whereas a man walks in with unschooled brilliance. Genius women, we’ve got them. Genius men, we’ve got them too. But when I say genius it’s rarely a woman that’s thought of first.
– Chairwoman. As opposed to chairperson when you’re trying to resist using chairman. I’ll admit there is something about chairperson that doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way as chairwomen or chairman but explicitly gendered language is a problem in the workplace.
If you are unsure they try this on for size; “hey guys,” because you never say “hey girls” in the workplace. That would be belittling and offensive. We instantly recognise the need for a gender-neutral alternative, hence the “hey team.” The same applies to the chair.
Fundamentally the role of the chairperson is to provide leadership and ensure the organisation is managed effectively according to the constitution, policies and procedures. Competence and the perception of competence is vital, a task amplified by those leadership qualities we typically associate with men but destabilised by those associated with women. The subtle differentiation of the chair invites the gender bias mindset and frankly establishes the slippery slope. However unbiased and objective we think we are, we just aren’t there yet. It is not too politically correct to use the term chairperson, it’s just a mouthful.
Here’s an easy way to check your word choice
There is plenty of content online to help you move away from gender-biased language but the quickest test on the equality of any terminology is reversibility or additionally. If you wouldn’t apply the same adjectives to a man, then don’t apply them to yourself or any other women. If you have to include your gender to make your point, then don’t. Words matter team. Choose them carefully.