Strident. Bossy. Screechy. Shrill. Manipulative. Controlling. Imperious. Secretive.
In a presidential election rife with accusations of sexism, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, scores of adjectives have been used to describe the candidates. When we examine the above words of critique used by journalists, pundits, politicians, bloggers, and a slew of influential opinion-sharers against Hillary Clinton—the first woman to seriously contend for the White House after more than 200 years of male rule—a pattern of gender bias emerges that still runs like a powerful underground river in our national dialogue.
Invoking sexist terms and critiques
Derogatory, stereotypical remarks about powerful women continue to echo in the very words chosen to describe them. These words—referring to the demeanor and personality of women leaders—get dramatically skewed by detractors into everything from diminutive jargon to visceral and fierce attacks.
Clinton has served as a lightning rod that’s illuminated an inherent problem in the US culture. Words used to describe women leaders set perceptions and trigger stereotypes—and what’s even more telling—these adjectives simply are not often given to men. In fact, if we look at the characteristics behind these words and attribute them to a male leader—these same qualities suddenly garner praise instead of derision.
Decisive. Commanding. Strong-voiced. Definitive. Political. Assertive. Confident. Private.
Slipping into Stereotypes
Over and over, the words in which we describe women leaders slip into stereotype, and we do a disservice to our daughters—and ourselves—when we label a seasoned leader who boldly speaks what she thinks asstrident instead of decisive.
Moreover, it doesn’t just occur in the political arena. These same sentiments become an ongoing uphill battle for women leaders within the business world who have been vilified with adjectives similar to what Clinton has experienced.
Undermining strong women
The very etymology of word choices used today around women leaders hearkens back to an era where- strong women were disparaged in the workplace—and not just by men, but also by women who did not respond well to their ascendancy in the business world.
It’s one thing to make personality judgments about leadership styles, but what’s apparent by the adjective usage is that our language has become highly judgmental. We can see the judgments packed into the words—tough vs. domineering, focused vs. nagging.
Power of words to change perception
The language we use ends up embodying judgment, detriment, or derogatory sentiments. We have to change the dialogue because the words we use can change perception. Depending on our word choice, someone goes from bitchy to tough on foreign policy.
We need to separate personality and gender from leadership style because if we want to raise the next generation of strong women leaders, we need to police our own rhetoric in talking about leadership characteristics. We want our daughters to rise up as leaders, but we don’t want them called bitchy, screechy, or strident. The election—as well as the recent scandal around former Fox News head Roger Ailes—has shown all too well that this type of harassment sexism prevails in most societies.
Our workplace culture remains tethered to feminine archetypes used as a wedge of criticism—but much exists that both men and women can do to deflect and ultimately reposition today’s dialogue.
To be egalitarian, our language has to become egalitarian. No longer can we look at one concept or attribute through two gender-based lenses. If we see a take-charge attitude in a colleague, supervisor, or political candidate, we cannot refer to the women as bossy and the men as leaders. Moreover, we need to shut down the qualitative associations we ascribe to descriptive words such as secretive, when used in conjunction with women, instead of the more neutral choice private that’s often associated with men.
Be aware of judgments in language. While words can often be used deliberately to advance a point of view, other times judgment and biases prove so deeply ingrained that words can be used without the user realizing the lasting implications. By simply being aware of how what we say can take down women leaders and making another word choice, we can begin to remedy our cultural dialogue.
Reframe the discussion. Finally, we can go a step further and actively work to reframe the conversation. When we hear pejorative language, we need to reposition it. If we hear a colleague tagged as controlling, don’t let the label stand and instead remind others that she’s actually assertive—a trait that the organization values.
So much about today’s culture centres around larger-than-life dissections of anyone who breaks a stereotype or shatters a glass ceiling. It’s time we celebrate the drive, determination, and strength exhibited by women leaders—and recognize this starts with our very words.