Words Reflect Behaviors: How Casual Discourse Perpetuates Gender Bias

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This is not a political post, but I cannot remain silent about the now infamous recording of Donald Trump proudly admitting to sexual assault against women. I have been shocked to hear his words described as mere “mean things” and his own characterization of the conversation as harmless “locker room talk.” It reminded me of Brock Turner’s father’s characterization of rape as “20 minutes of action.” I have been further saddened to see other women dismiss his words describing his actions as acceptable because they disagree with Hillary Clinton’s politics. Disliking one person does not equate to absolution of another. Even Howard Stern denounced Trump’s characterization of sexual assault as mere locker room talk. And just so you are clear, sexual assault clearly includes a non-consensual sexual touching of another.

In addition to being a shameful revelation of the depravity of his character, the justification of his remarks demonstrates how casual discourse perpetuates gender bias and gender discrimination. Discourse is the communication of thought by words, speech and conversation. It is a collective of statements, concepts, terms and expressions that constitute a way of talking or writing about a particular issue.” Discourse is social construction that influences our behaviors, actions, and the way we see the world. Our words and language create our reality. The names we give creates context.

The popular colloquialism, “Sticks and stones may hurt your bones, but words can never hurt you.” couldn’t be more far from the truth. Words can really hurt you! When we casually dismiss discussion of crimes as “harmless words,” we devalue the actions behind the words and desensitize ourselves to the impact.

This desensitization is how gender bias is perpetuated. In society, the workplace and pop culture, we use words to describe women in a way that devalues her contributions as a leader, as a mother, as a wife, as a woman.

As the “grab them by the p***y” controversy has unraveled, I have seen justifications of his remarks because similar language is used in pop culture. Rap music and Beyoncé have been brought into the fray. Now there are many rap lyrics that make me cringe and some that are downright offensive and misogynistic. But there is a big difference between a rapper uttering filth and a man who wants to be leader of the United States. There is a difference between entertainment and reality. But the media is responsible for the glorification of both. As consumers, we have a power to perpetuate or a power to prevent. Far too often, we are too caught up in the sensationalism to speak up and speak against.

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about the implications of a presidential candidate openly admitting to sexual assault and disrespect against women in a nonchalant manner. Her remarks go further than politics, but about the power of semantics. She spoke honestly about the powerlessness that cutting words make women feel.

I worked in a male-dominated environment most of my career. And as fabulous as I am, I have never felt more vulnerable than to be disrespected by my male colleagues. I never will forget having a male colleague casually recount how a board member asked him about my big ass. I remember being in the parking lot of my office in shock! I could not believe my ears, yet all I could do was laugh in disbelief. I was an executive in this company, but his words cut me down and I felt powerless. The comfort with which he reduced me to a “big ass,” made me feel powerless. I hoped that my silence and nervous laughter at that moment did not give consent for future disrespect. I could not get myself together in that parking lot, but I did not address it appropriately later. But I was in a position where I could. So many women are not. They are afraid to go to HR. They are afraid to go their supervisors. They are afraid they will lose their jobs. Or worse, they are silenced by those they trust when they are ignored or the action is justified or dismissed as harmless.

Our beliefs show up in our thoughts. Our thoughts are revealed in our words. Our words describe our actions. When we dismiss words as harmless, we give consent to the actions the words represent.

Words carry the seeds of gender bias and spread perceptions that shape reality. We must hold our leaders accountable for their words. We must understand that words really do hurt, especially when they are uttered by powerful people. Every leader must understand the power of their words. Even the Bible tells us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Women, especially, must be careful about what we endorse. Whether it is a direct endorsement or an endorsement by silent consent, we can become part of the problem. Even if we are shocked or scared or uncertain, we must find our voice and call a spade a spade. Words carry action.