The Key To Smashing The Glass Ceiling

5
4 min read

Break the glass ceiling at work with a few words

In a world where violence against women, unequal access to education and the gender pay gap are still global issues, it’s easy to think that the way women talk about themselves and are talked about just isn’t a priority problem. But this view underestimates the power of language to fundamentally shape society.
Language is the framework we use to express ourselves, influencing and reflecting cultural attitudes. It is also a time capsule, containing an imprint of how these attitudes have changed over time.
Default masculinity and the glass ceiling

Today the different ways we still speak about masculinity and femininity leads girls as young as six to start thinking boys are smarter. At the same time, persistent and pervasive ideas about femininity reinforce women as sexual objects (as Trump famously did by bragging about grabbing women by the pussy).

English language is still structured to make masculinity the default, and femininity the other or the silent. It is peppered with negative value judgements that are unconsciously reinforced millions of times a day.

Hey ‘guys’!

When the term ‘guys’ is used to describe a mixed group, women are wiped out by the term.

When women are referred to collectively as girls, femininity is linked to being childlike.

“When women are excluded by default by words like mankind, how can they expect to be paid a man’s salary?”

The generic “he” is still favoured when giving abstract examples, despite the precedent for gender neutral constructions in literature for centuries (e.g. ‘A person can’t help their birth” Thackeray, Vanity Fair. ‘As if I were their well-acquainted friend’ Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors).

Chairman, batsman, mankind, ‘all men are created equal’, policeman, fireman, seamen

Numerous occupations and positions of power also still have the word ‘man’ hardwired into their titles (Chairman, batsman, our Man in Havana). Even the word to describe ourselves, woman, reflects the biblical conception that ladies were made from and are subordinate to man.

Break the glass ceiling at work with words: how to career advice for women
Break the glass ceiling at work with words: how to career advice for women
Tackling root causes to break the glass ceiling

This really matters because when women are excluded by default by words like mankind, how can they expect to be paid a man’s salary? If language systematically reinforces women as sexual objects, then how can women expect equal respect in their careers and their love lives?

“This is the language of the everyday that we use from birth. We don’t question these words and what they are doing to our collective subconscious.”

By tackling sexist language, we are working to stamp out a route cause – peeling apart the structure of society that creates an environment for violence, for pay gaps and exclusion from the classroom. There should be no more pressing issue.

You whiteys – an intriguing experiment

If you’re still sceptical, consider philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, who highlighted sexist language by creating an imaginary scenario where generics are premised on race rather than sex. Under these rules people use ‘freshwhite’, ‘chairwhite’ and ‘you whiteys’. Even ‘all whites are created equal’. People of colour would be expected to feel included in these terms, just as women are expected to accept ‘freshman’, ‘chairman’ and ‘you guys’. If we are naturally outraged by such potentially racist terms, why are we ignoring the sexist reality of language?

“‘Courtesan’, originally used to mean a woman who attended the royal court, now means prostitute.”

Rabid Feminism

The answer of course is that this is the language of the everyday that we use from birth. We don’t question these words and what they are doing to our collective subconscious. Sexism is so hard wired into language that often we fail to notice it. Even Oxford University Press is guilty of it when compiling the dictionary. OUP uses collocation to put words in context and explain how they are used in phrases. They include words commonly associated with the word being defined. This led them to contextualise the word ‘rabid’, by including the associated word ‘feminist’. Not okay.

Claiming courtesan back

Even more insidious is the way that over time neutral or positive words used to describe women have slowly come to be used negatively, in a phenomenon known as pejoration. Examples include ‘courtesan’, originally used to mean a woman who attended the royal court, now used to mean prostitute, ‘madam’, originally a woman of high rank, now the female manager of a brothel, and ‘spinster’, originally the term for a woman who spun yarn to make a living, now a pejorative term for an older single woman.

The joy of swearing – winning the right to scream ‘f*** you!

Some good news is that there are signs that language use is changing to reflect increasing gender equality. Take the use of swearing. Barbara LeMaster, a linguistic anthropologist at California State University, did some research into patterns of swearing and discovered that a century ago men used phrases similar to modern expletives, whereas women had ‘special language’ that was softer, such as ‘oh goodness’ and ‘my gracious’. When comparing usage today, she found that women now use many of the same words as men, if not more. Winning the right to scream ‘f*** you!’ feels like an important step in the right direction.

Clearly there is still a lot of work to do, and we can begin with choosing our words more carefully. By taking control of how we describe ourselves and how we are described, and by calling out those who say none of this matters, we will continue to break the glass ceiling and contribute to a brighter future for all.

Hannah x

Have you ever been a heroine and called someone out on sexist language? How did that go? Share your experiences in the comments below or click here to debrief with the IL Community.

Cover photo credit: atelierdore.com

Break the glass ceiling at work with a few words

5 Comments
  1. Debra says

    Not quite a heroine, but I did conspire with my year 6 female classmates to say A-Woman at the end of the Lords Prayer one morning. Needless to say we got into serious trouble and were scolded for being sacrilegious.

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Haha! That’s hilarious. Well done Debra!

  2. Isobel says

    I really enjoyed reading this! I was brought up to pay attention to phrases like ‘master bedroom’ that we all just use without thinking about it, so this really resonated with me. It’s just so hard to avoid implicitly sexist language in English! Although I think most languages are quite similar. Icelandic, nicely enough, has a neuter plural (avoiding the guys/girls issue you mentioned).

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hey Isobel, I had no idea the Icelandic language was gender neutral. How interesting. Yes, the English language is a minefield. And once you start looking, gender specific references pop up everywhere. Awareness is a good starting point.

  3. […] we recently wrote here, “in a world where violence against women, unequal access to education and the gender pay […]

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