Words Matter: How Small Changes In Language Can Impact Women's Advancement In The Workplace
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Words. We know what we utter can have a serious implications on people around us. However, sometimes it is more subtle than we expect.
At a recent EY #SheBelongs event, which was part of our International Women’s Day celebration in Dubai, attendees at a breakaway session considered a jumble of words laid out on a table. Words like “assimilated,” “empowered,” “bold,” “respected,” and “motivated”. The moderator then went on to ask, which words would women around the table like to hear about themselves from their peers and their organization? What was most alarming about this exercise was that the focus on words and bias started many years ago, and we are still having this conversation– so are things really changing?
The exercise drew attention to the way subtle differences in language can either support or hinder women’s advancement in the workplace, whether during hiring, in performance reviews, or when promotion decisions are made. Take words like “strident,” “abrasive,” or “aggressive,” for example. The ability to express oneself strongly is not restricted to one gender, but women are more likely to be criticized for it– and the criticism is potentially couched in more negative terms. Even positive descriptions can show a subtle bias. Think for example about a word like “compassionate,” which one large study found to be the positive word most commonly used in women’s performance appraisals. It’s hard to imagine anybody denying that this is an excellent trait to possess– but in many corporate cultures, it is also not a trait commonly associated with leadership. In praising a woman for her compassion rather than, say, her analytical clarity or her ability to deliver business results, well-meaning superiors may actually be undermining her prospects for promotion.
What might be interesting, is with the advancements in thinking of “what makes a great leader,” the words empathy and compassionate are at the forefront, so will this start to change the game? Keeping the focus of performance appraisals on business outcomes, and giving specific developmental feedback, is particularly important for women. There is a large body of evidence that suggest that women are much more likely than men to get vague feedback: “You did a great job on project X,” for example, is pleasant but unhelpful; “You need to develop your skills in area Y,” on the other hand, suggests a specific course of future action that will help both the individual and the organization. And if a women’s feedback is not linked to specific accomplishments over time, it is much harder to build a case for promotion.
Interestingly, the pattern of giving vague feedback to women holds for both positive and critical comments, and regardless of whether the person giving it is a man or a woman. It’s tempting to speculate about reasons– could there be an enduring sub-conscious belief that women are somehow more fragile? For example, if it were a performance appraisal, could we, irrespective of the gender of the appraisee, include questions such as: are these criteria I’m using clear, specific, and common to all employees at this level? Is this feedback directly linked to business outcomes? Have I offered specific suggestions for ways to improve performance?
One of the underlying drivers of the different feedback given to men and women may be found in different communication styles. In the US in particular, and in similar cultures, many girls tend to play in ways that emphasize similarity and downplay difference– “you think you’re better than me” is a criticism many girls learn to avoid early on. Boys, on the other hand, tend to play in ways that emphasize differences in status– proving that you’re better than someone else is often precisely the point.
These styles carry over into adulthood and into the workplace, where men are often more likely to compete for dominance and women more likely to try and build rapport. Neither of these styles is inherently better or worse than the other, and both can be valuable. However, if the organizational culture equates leadership with dominance, and rapport-building with lack of confidence, then women will be disadvantaged. Recognizing these different styles can help to unlock the value of culturally diverse workforces as well. Teaching indirect communicators how to be more forthright and assertive is only half the solution– the other half is teaching the straightforward to be better at recognizing subtle cues and hints.
With that in mind, leaders need to be more mindful about differing communication styles to avoid drawing false conclusions. Furthermore, all employees should work to become more sensitive to subtle gender biases in language. To take the example of Facebook executive Deb Liu. When she started documenting all the times she heard gender-specific language at work, she heard it everywhere, from “manpower” and “man up,” to “prima donna” and “Debbie Downer.” None of which did anything to bridge the seemingly invisible divide.
Let’s be honest, gendered language is everywhere, and it can perpetuate stereotypes that harm women in the workplace. It is through these words that people tend to make inaccurate judgements about competence, confidence and leadership ability based on the different ways men and women communicate. If leaders are aware of these dynamics, they will be empowered to make better decisions.
Words. They are indeed more powerful than most of us believe.