People who identify as women face many more challenges in the workplace than those who identify as men. The majority of workplaces are not designed for women to succeed or rise to positions of power; the culture is designed so that women enter the workplace in a lower position and stay there because traditionally that is "what they are good at." This bias toward men starts with one simple tool that we all use. Language. Our words carry a lot of power.
Have you heard phrases like "man up" or "be a man"? People unconsciously use these common expressions without realizing that these words imply that if you are not a man or do not possess masculine qualities, you are somehow not as good. And then there is the issue of the gendered language used in workspaces, and how it does not support the success and growth of women.
According to researchers at Clayman Institute for Gender Research, when discussing qualities of leadership there are two types of language used: communal language and agentic language. The words confident, direct, expressive, independent, and hardworking fall under the category of agentic language. Those words can certainly describe a woman in a position of leadership, but for the majority of people, a man comes to mind. Then some words are labeled communal language: supportive, compassionate, friendly, and helpful. These words are more often used to describe women and are not associated with good leadership.
Women who are outspoken, confident, who "get the job done" are quickly given labels like Drama Queen, Negative Nancy, Debbie Downer, and other derogatory epithets implying that being "like a man" is a negative thing if you are a woman. Despite all of the obstacles women face they are continuing to slowly take up more positions of leadership, but the statistics are still disproportional.
"For every 100 men promoted to manager-level roles, only 79 women moved up into similar roles. The numbers are even more abysmal for women of color, who make up only 17% of entry-level roles and 4% of C-suite positions." (McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org).
We're far from an ideal place where women and men make up higher positions almost equally. These statistics, far from ideal, show that there is still much to be done, and we must implement change even on the most basic level of the language we use.
There is no clear one-size-fits-all answer, but this doesn't mean we give up and just accept things as the way they are. Language is fluid, it is constantly changing. One of the main reasons that language changes is because the needs of those who use it change. New technology emerges, new concepts are born, and new rules are added to pre-existing ones. As women are no longer seen as lower than men, our needs change and in turn, the language we use will change.
By putting in the effort and refraining from using gendered language you can start the change. The solutions below are based on findings from "Women in the Workplace 2019," conducted by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org.
Change the evaluation process
It's often in feedback and evaluations where we see agentic and communal language used. If words that are not associated with good leaders are used to describe the work of a woman, it will be nearly impossible for her to get a promotion or a raise. All new things take practice. Unconscious bias training can be beneficial in creating a space where the language is inclusive for all workers. In this training, those who are evaluators realize the biases they have. They consciously work on not letting those interfere with their work or how they interact with co-workers.
"Just do it"
The second solution that is suggested by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org sounds easier but is harder to put into practice than the previous solution. Start using gender-inclusive language. The good thing about this solution is that anyone in any position can participate and work together to create a better space for all who work there.
- Use "they" instead of "he" or "her."
- Steer away from words that end with man. businessman, chairman, mailman, spokesman, and so on. Instead, use words that end in person; businessperson, chairperson, mail carrier, and spokesperson.
Our words have more impact than you may realize and, while it is not easy to change the way you speak, taking these steps and recognizing the issue is a first step toward empowering women in the workplace.
Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.
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