A few weeks ago I wrote an article on how not to talk to women in the workplace. The piece garnered some interesting comments, some of which I’d like to address today.
The first issue I’d like to discuss is the recurring idea that language is not as important as behaviour. In other words, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do, that matters. I get the sentiment behind this statement, and on the surface it makes logical sense. But I also think that language and behaviour are actually inextricably intertwined.
In my experience, people who use certain language often exhibit corresponding behaviour. For example, I’ve previously worked with a person who almost always referred to groups of employees based on their gender, and also just happened to separate work that way as well. There was one particular physical task that would come up from time to time, and this manager would recruit every male in the office to help, and exactly none of the females. The task was physical but by no means beyond the capabilities of any of the females in the office. This was always irritating to me, but also to the men who were forced to spend twice as long on the task because this manager was only using half of the staff available to them.
I also think language is incredibly powerful, and we internalise the things we say and the things others say about us. For example, when black students are asked to identify their race on a test, they perform worse in the test that if they do not have to identify as such. It’s as if the simple act of identifying and labelling yourself reminds you of the stereotypes surrounding your social identity, causing you to perform more in line with what’s expected of you.
Is it possible that this principal can also be applied to gender roles? When groups of people are constantly referred to based on gender, does it not reinforce the idea that differences between the genders are the most important thing?
And when groups or individuals are referred to as girls or ladies, is it possible that we perform in line with the connotations attached to those words? In today’s society, being a female is seen as being comparatively weak, emotional and inferior to a male. Why is the phrase “you run like a girl” seen as an insult? There should be nothing intrinsically insulting about that statement, but the connotations with being female suggest that this means you are slow and weak.
This phenomenon, known as stereotype threat, can be seen in this study which showed that female chess players performed worse in games of internet chess when they were told they were playing a male. When falsely informed they were playing a female, their performance increased to a level equal to that of their male counterparts.
This is why I have an obvious problem with phrases like “don’t be such a girl”, because they perpetuate the harmful stereotype that females are, by definition, weak. And we internalise that stereotype, which in turn negatively affects our performance.
In contrast, having male traits is often seen as advantageous, as in the phrases “grow some balls”, “man up” etc, which actually creates positive effects on performance, known as stereotype boost.
Lastly, some commenters made the assertion that you don’t get to decide what other people find offensive, especially if those people are from a disadvantaged subset of society. That is one idea that I whole-heartedly agree with.
You would never say the “N word” to a person of colour, or argue with why they might find that term offensive. For a while it was fashionable to use the word “Jew” as a slur (I think this may have originated from South Park?), and I think most people would agree that’s pretty messed up.
So why argue when women say they don’t want to be constantly referred to based on gender? You may not have experience with what that feels like, or with gender imbalance in your life or workplace, but why does that need to lessen my experience?
In the same way, some years ago I realised that it wasn’t cool to use the term “gay” as a synonym for “bad”. I lot of people I knew used the term and a lot of people still do. Most of us aren’t consciously homophobic, but I think using a word like this as a negative descriptor is bound to have negative consequences for people within the LGBTQIA community. Similarly, “retarded” is a word that is used far too often to mean stupid or incompetent. I know that this is offensive to people with different mental abilities, and I think it’s incredibly important to consider the use of such terms in our everyday speech patterns.
Yes, it’s inconvenient to have to change the way you speak to reflect more tolerant beliefs. Does that mean it’s not worth it? In my opinion, making people from all parts of society feel comfortable, supported and safe as they go about their everyday lives is always worth it.