My colleague and I had nailed it, but the compliment lingered. That word “girls”– and the ease of its delivery to two grown women — made me feel like our presence in the boardroom was quaint, that we didn’t quite belong. I brushed it off, laughed even, and moved on, as I have after so many similar minimizing remarks.
Overtly inappropriate language is, at least, easy to identify. It’s the understated and diminishing phrase that’s tougher to identify and address, and as a result, equally pernicious. In the incident above, “girls” was a reminder of what so many other comments had shown me: in his world, women didn’t belong in the boardroom, not as equals anyway.
In 2014, LeanIn.org launched #banbossy[i], a campaign aimed to raise awareness of gendered and demeaning language and how it holds women and girls back. While female leadership is on the rise, powerful women are still described as bossy, demanding, emotional even. This language highlights our culture’s internal biases: the stereotype of the ‘unpleasant female boss’ endures because we are wired to see women as relational, nurturing and non-confrontational. Those who don’t conform, are displeasing to the eye and ear, though we can’t always pinpoint why.
A 2018 study published in the Harvard Business Review evaluated language used in annual reviews and found that men were far more likely to be assessed with language that was “task-oriented” compared to women, who were labelled with traits that were “relationship-oriented”. The problem? Task oriented language was more likely to result in promotion than the latter.[ii]
Think also about the gendered nature of terms our society has been using for decades. Positive terms like golden boy, manpower and wingman, and the negative association with prima donna and drama queen reflect long-held biases. We throw these terms around with ease despite the toxic stereotypes they highlight.
In our search practice, we’ve taken steps to increase awareness of bias and limit its impact on our work. We also seek to place leaders who will bring diverse lived experience to the table to impact the culture of their organizations in the words they use, and the actions they take.
For anyone reading this who is curious about their own bias, whether gender-oriented or otherwise, I have three simple suggestions:
Listen: Ask the women around you about their experiences. Be an active listener, and resist the urge to add to or explain.
Second, commit to learning. AT DRG, we are reading “Blind Spot,” a book on bias by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald. While it isn’t specifically focused on gender, it does a great job of illuminating the underpinnings of bias and provides tools to reduce bias at work and at home.
Third, commit to more honest discussions with your colleagues. If it’s hard and uncomfortable at first, you’re probably doing it right.
Have an important story about gender equity and hiring in the workplace? We’d love to learn from your experiences.
About Sara Garlick Lundberg:
Read my previous article, “You Should Be Hiring More Women: Here’s Why”
[This article was originally published by Sara Garlick Lundberg in LinkedIn on 06/21/2019]