What's in a Word

More than you might think, especially for women.
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More than you might think.

Especially for women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don't even recognize. Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don't even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women's progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched -- and often unconscious -- sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like "aggressive" may be used to describe ideal candidates -- a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably? There's an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my double-standard category -- after aggressive, of course -- is "ambitious". An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry. But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada." The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving. They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too. Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled "The Scarlet A" in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I've interviewed some of the world's most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is "assertive." For men, that's an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive. For women? We often don't bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy. You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, "feisty," which itself is more than a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media, points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits. Organization -- think linear thinking -- is one. Another is the fact that while women process -- we talk things through -- men act. "Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary," she says.

True, that. And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we're likely to say "he's lost it." As in, momentary aberration. When a woman does the same, however, she's often dismissed as "emotional" (read: bad). Or "menstrual" (read: worse). Or even menopausal (read: worse yet). In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let's not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on "60 Minutes" a while back, he was "sensitive." When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as "emotional" -- there's that word again -- as in, not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in "Undecided", studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk. Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises. He becomes a "family man". To wit: what a guy! What's funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she's, well, home with the kids. Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well: A woman without a mate is either unmarried -- as in, poor thing -- or a spinster. Ugh. A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He's a catch. Throw sex into the equation and we've got another humdinger of a double standard. When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: "He's a stud, she's a slut." Enough said.

The list goes on. When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful. A good thing. When a woman does the same, especially at home, she's often called controlling. Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he's a good leader. His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker. Even clothing carries it's own weight. As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he's cool. When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability -- or lack of same -- to self-promote. It's a plus for men, who are expected to "showboat a little." But women? Not so much. We're expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves. Or else we'll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what's coming next: if there's a promotion to be had, you can guess who's most likely to get it.

Ahem. Word.

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