Debra Allcock Tyler: Mind your language

We must be mindful of the words we use if we are to get rid of unconscious bias against women leaders

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

When my nephew Charlie was about three years old, he was racing his toy fire engine in the hallway when my mother and sister suddenly heard him yell "Get out of the f***ing way!" Horrified, my sister immediately summoned the toddler to account for himself. "Charlie!" she said. "You know we don’t use language like that in this house!" "Sorry, mummy," came the shame-faced reply. "It was the f***ing traffic."

Of course, we all howled with laughter, knowing full well that he had probably heard my sister use those phrases in the car.

There are folk who say it’s only words and words don’t matter much. Sticks and stones and all that. But I see it differently. I believe that words are hugely powerful, and much of the hidden and unconscious sexism we experience as women leaders – indeed, as women generally – happens because of words.

For example, I was recently on an all-women panel with a male chair. The chair was actually great: insightful, asked good questions, managed the panel well. And I would swear on my life that he would consider himself to be a feminist and would react in horror at the idea that anyone would consider any of his remarks as biased against women. Yet, in his summing up, he described us panellists as "sparky".

The problem? It’s a word that would probably not be used to describe a male panel. And it’s a word that implicitly trivialises what was intelligent, forthright and informed debate. To be clear – this isn’t a male vs female problem. Both men and women use different sorts of words when describing women and when describing men. And the words used to describe women are usually, even if implicitly and subconsciously, disparaging or dismissive.

There is a plethora of research to back up this notion that we don’t use the same words to describe men and women in leadership positions. For example, Kieran Snyder, a linguist and tech company owner, found in a study of performance reviews (Fortune magazine, June 2014) a noticeable difference in the way women and men were described and judged.

She found that words such as "bossy, abrasive, strident and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviours when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their behaviours when they object". And so many of the words are effectively demeaning or lessening the value of the woman’s contribution. In fairness, we women don’t help ourselves. Twitter is full of tweets of us talking about catching up with the "fab-u-lous X" or the "gorgeous Y". Men don’t describe each other in those ways.

I’m writing about this now because the latest edition of Third Sector is celebrating women leaders. So it’s a timely reminder for those men and women who are genuinely committed to getting rid of unconscious bias against women leaders that we need to be mindful of the words we use and the subliminal messages they convey.

As my mother firmly reprimanded my sister – we need to "mind our language".

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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