Three weeks ago I was told (by a male manager) that I had been unsuccessful in my application for a position that was very similar to my current job, which I had been carrying out successfully for years, because I am too “directive and blunt”. My immediate reaction was to wonder whether I would have been told that if I was a man.
Fortunately for my sanity I left the next day for Venice. I couldn’t think of a better place to distract me from brooding on not getting the job I wanted because I am too blunt!
The language used to describe women is different from that used to describe men and is often derogatory. If a woman is assertive, she is described as being aggressive. If she’s young, she’s told she’s bossy. How many boys are told they’re bossy? If she gets annoyed, she is told she is being emotional, or even worse, hormonal. She might be described as being shrill. Or, as in my case, she misses out on a promotion. And heaven help you if you get so angry at the way you’re being spoken to, you’re close to tears.
If a woman stands up for herself, she’s often described as being difficult. If she gives her boss unsolicited advice, speaks up first in meetings and doesn’t let men speak over her, she risks being disliked or even called a bitch (Katie Kay & Claire Shipman). And it gets worse if she is successful. How often do you hear successful women being described as cold and power-hungry?
No wonder women suffer from the imposter syndrome when they are described in such personal, derogatory ways. Even though I know I’m more than capable of carrying out the job I applied for, I find that doubt keeps creeping in and I still haven’t decided whether I am going to challenge the decision not to appoint
So what can we do? I know it’s very tempting to escape somewhere (like Venice?), or ignore what has been said, when you’ve been attacked with this type of language, but I believe that the only way to change this type of language when it is used to describe women is to challenge it every time we hear it. Ask the person what they mean by saying you’re aggressive or emotional. Maybe ask them what they would have said if you were a man.
The use of language that demeans women doesn’t only occur in the workplace, but invades all areas of our lives. In another post I’ll talk about this type of language, some of which is quite subtle, and the negative effects it has on women and how we are perceived.