The English language is saturated with gendered terms which unconsciously sneak their way into everyday discourse, serving their purpose elevating men above women in daily societal power relations.
It is an acknowledged fact that the way men and women speak is different; eminent professor Deborah Cameron has studied this in depth and published her argument in her accessible books including ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus’.
Beyond the structural differences, however, lies a vocabulary of sexist terminology which perpetuates inequality, and is often inadvertently used by those who don’t realise that they’re reinforcing perpetuating sexism. This issue of language is recognised in the area of sexual relations, the words ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘whore’ and tart’ (amongst many others) having no male equivalent.
This bias unfortunately extends beyond the bedroom into the boardroom, hampering women in their pursuit of career progression and recognition. There are three broad categories that these words can be divided into, as illustrated below.
In order to fully address the issue of workplace discrimination we have to begin by acknowledging and understanding the full extent of the issue, right down to the very last syllable.
A little too intense?
Have you ever heard of a feisty man? This word projects an image of a women who is fierce in contrast to a sweet or unthreatening appearance, unladylike and attempting to prove a threat to the patriarchal model of calm, assured dominance.
Assertive, determined women are termed as aggressively ambitious and intense. Ambition is a word used less commonly with regard to men, as ambition is taken as a given within a man’s career.
The words ‘stubborn’ and ‘pushy’ similarly evoke the image of a woman who is straining against the bonds of femininity which ought to control and define her, implying that she has strayed beyond the subconsciously agreed perimeter of her remit.
The word that has received perhaps the most publicity is ‘bossy’, often in connection with children. From their very first years in the world girls are praised by being told that they are pretty, ‘princess’ sometimes being used when a little girl’s name is unknown , whilst a male child is a ‘clever boy’. When they’re overly assertive boys are said to be ‘boisterous’, living up to the temperament expected of them and fulfilling the role of leader.
Conversely, girls are bossy. Assertiveness and the instinct to lead, to achieve, is from the first termed as a negative trait in the female sex. Whilst you may think your female line manager comes across as overly domineering and bossy, it would be rare for you to think of a male boss in the same terms; he would be an assertive, powerful character to respect.
Talking too much?
Beyond conveying reprehensible assertiveness, ‘bossy’ also has the connotation of a person repeatedly demands unreasonable things in empty words. Women are ‘shrill’, their loud voices offensive by their very nature.
Having ‘a gossip’ is a term not typically associated with men, yet is often used for women – as a noun for individuals, and as a verb for women as a collective. When women do have a ‘natter’, a ‘gossip’, or engage in ‘chit-chat’, such terminology belittles the conversations themselves, making their discussions seem menial or insignificant in nature.
These terms imply that women conversation can often consist of ‘casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people…not confirmed as true’ (Oxford English Dictionaries). This implication of picking over private matters in a breach of an original seal of trust portrays women as untrustworthy.
The vicious nature of female speech is further highlighted by the word ‘bitchy’, which is a fundamentally negative word. You would have to work hard to find a man with a ‘resting bitch face’. This term is liberally applied to women in everyday society and is itself an acknowledgment that women are not expected – or supposed – to look naturally serious or solemn. Such serious expressions afford a gravitas more suited to men; society wants women in the form of innocent, honest and sweet looking Disney characters.
Making it personal
The notion that women are ‘hysterical’, ‘crazy’ and ‘overly emotional’ stems from a long history of female madness and maladies (think of mad woman in the attic stereotype), and are typically associated with the time of the month. These stereotypes are not only hugely insulting and false, but can be incredibly damaging when it comes to valuations of women’s capacity to perform consistently at the same level as men.
The notion that a women can be a overly dramatic, a ‘drama queen’, ‘diva’ or ‘prima donna’ implies not only an excess of emotion, but also that such emotion is staged, and that women are not naturally sincere if expressing particular demands or demonstrating emotion. The female aesthetic is often viewed as a front, a show, there being (implicitly) a greater, somewhat scheming motivation behind the external picture.
The host of gendered terms here discussed should never work their way into office dialogue, but will inevitably pop up again and again. We must remember that our words are demonstrative of our core beliefs – our dialogue forms and shapes the way we think. Until women are on an equal footing with men semantically, they will never be equal in a practical employment environment.
Alexandra Jane writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency. Check out their website to see which internships and graduate jobs are currently available. Or, if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.