The Power Of Words – And Women At Work

Bitchy. Bossy. Intimidating. Unlikeable. Shrill. “Girls”. Ladyboss. Incompetent. Hired only “because she’s a woman.”. Bad Attitude.

Assertive. A leader. Competent. Knows their stuff. Executive pretense. Boss. Brilliant, for full of new ideas. Focused. Determined.

Words are powerful things. When it comes to women at work, many successful women hear words that take away their power.

Which set of words do you think are more likely to be used to describe women at work? If you guessed the first set, ding-ding-ding, you win one internet star.

Does This Really Happen?

Whenever women talk about things like the gender pay gap, or being perceived differently than their male collegues, plenty of people (usually men) think that can’t be true. They’ve never seen it happen – or more likely, never noticed. Because when I did a quick poll with the awesome people on my Twitter feed, I had over twenty responses from different people on the words people use at work to describe women in a negative light.

I took this poll to help out a co-worker who was doing a presentation to some of our early-career team members on women at work. After I collected all the helpful responses (shout-outs to Ms ZiYou, Penny from She Picks Up Pennies, Mrs. 1500, Financial Muse, Zero Day Finance, No Nonsense Momming, Sarah from Smile and Couquer, Plutonomy MomBethany from His and Her FI, Melissa from Sun Burnt Saver, Stephonee from Poorer Than YouMs Money Nerd, Millennial Boss, Melissa Pedersen from Money Tips, Elle from Flip the Fail, Meagan Lewis, The 76k Project, Dirt Cheap Wealth, Spyder, Mom Guilt Club, Emma from Moving and Baking, Karen Mac, Debt & Cupcakes, and Moriah Joy from Our Table for Two for their help), I sent my response.

Interestingly, I was the first one of the 20-someodd women to reply to her message. In my response, I mentioned that I had “polled some other successful corporate women for their thoughts”. Technically Zero Day Finance is not a woman, but I figured it was better than saying “polled twitter”.

But I wasn’t the last to respond.

After I sent in my response, about ten other women chimed in. These are all mid-career, successful, high potential corporate women.  And without exception, they agreed with everything I (we) said. They added in their own thoughts, as well as some traits women tend to exhibit that hold them back (like apologizing too often).

If this many women feel this strongly on the topic, it must be a common experience. But why? And why does it matter?

Issues With Words

Women are taught from an early age that we must be likeable above all else. And this carries into the workplace.

Likeable means smiling. How many of you out there have been told to “smile!” when you’re deep in thought? Or perhaps to “cheer up!”. Women are not decorative objects in the office, gliding around specifically to look nice. Sometimes we are thinking about complex work issues, had a bad meeting, or are preparing for a presentation to senior leadership. Such things usually leave you looking contemplative, not chipper and grinning from ear to ear.

Likeable means not telling other people what to do. That’s bitchy, or bossy, or aggressive. If you’re firm, then you have a bad attitude, or a bad tone.

Likeable also means not being too smart, too good at what you do, or a confident person. That’s intimidating to others. Better to be mediocre, so other people can feel good about themselves.

Younger women are called “girls”, or talked to in a way that emphasizes their age. Women will note that rarely are just-graduated men in the workforce refered to as “boys”.

People feel free to comment on a womans appearance, or what she’s wearing, in a way you never would for men. I’ve never heard comments on mens shoes, for example, the same way I have for mine. I happen to like amazing consignment shop shoes, what can I say?

Women are “maternal”, “menopausal”, “PMSy” “emotional”, “touchy”, or otherwise defined by traits that paint them as fragile objects filled with feelings. Not professional, of course. We must be robots, and never have any emotions that come through in our voices. And if we do have feelings, they must be because we’re mom-like and/or filled with hormones.

People put “lady”, “girl”, or “mom” in front of words in a way you don’t hear for men. Men are bosses, while women are a “girl boss” or “lady boss”. Men are entrepreneurs – women are “momtrepreneurs”. Protip – if you wouldn’t use the word “lord”, “boy”, or “dad” in front of a word, don’t use “lady”, “girl”, or “mom.” Some women aren’t bothered by this, but enough women are that it’s a good rule of thumb.

Why This Is A Problem

Successful women very much hate this. And nearly universally, we’ve all experienced something like this at least once in their careers.

It’s not just us though. Check out this list of 25 words only used to describe women, or this list from Forbes about how mens words at work hurt women. This is something that’s widespread, and been around for a long time. Even though the genders in the workforce are becoming more equal, that’s a long way from equality.

Using negative words to describe women, or to describe traits differently depending on the gender of the person expressing them, hurts women. It not only hurts their self-image, but it hurts them professionally. Because many of those traits are exactly what they need to succeed.

A leader frequently isn’t liked. They need to make tough decisions, make sure the work gets done (even if people don’t want to do it), and deal with complex issues where they can’t please everyone. To advance at work, you need to be someone who can make those difficult decisions. You have to be pleasant, but serious at times. Would you want to work for someone who isn’t smart and confident? And should it really matter what kind of shoes or clothes a leader is wearing, or should their work be what matters?

People also often have images in their mind of “moms” that conflict with being successful at work. I’ve heard it before on this site, as well as on social media. This is why talking about someone using words like “maternal”, or “mompreneur” can be harmful. Some people hear “mom” and immediately think of stay at home moms, assume that the woman is only working because she needs to and would rather stay home, or are in a low-level position at work. The woman, because she’s a mom, must be seeking flexibility above all else. If she has a business, it’s a nice little business to keep her occupied when the kids are at school. They’re surprised that a mom could support the family on her income, or earn six figures in a high powered job. It conflicts with their mental image of what a “mom” is.

What You Can Do

I have quite a few male readers on this site, so if you’re not a woman – pay attention to the words used to describe women at work. Even if you personally never use these words to describe your female colleagues, you are likely to hear them if you listen for them. Once you’re aware of this, you can be part of helping to change the conversation. Point out that you shouldn’t call professional women “girls,” or that complaining about a women being “bossy” when she’s exhibiting leadership skills is uncalled for. Your female colleagues will be grateful, and you’ll be part of helping to change how women at work are perceived.

Women, if you’ve experienced this, I want to hear from you. What tips do you have for responding to these kinds of words? And how have you been successful in changing the conversation where you work?

If I had daughters, I would wish that when they grow up, this won’t be an issue. Instead, since I have three sons, I’ll be part of teaching them the power of words at work, and how you should always use them for good.

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4 thoughts on “The Power Of Words – And Women At Work”

  1. This post is SO good and SO timely, Liz! And as being someone in a very male dominated field, I’ve been called probably all of these. Looking extra young hasn’t helped either, nor has being a “young” mom (or at least young when it comes to professionals in my area). I used to not bristle at the term girl boss, but it’s starting to really bug me as I get older.

    1. I support people who want to use that term for themselves, but it bugs so many women that I think we shouldn’t use it for others.

  2. YES!!! The words we use matter so much!

    I’m supervising a gig with 45+ other professionals under me. After consistently breaking the rules for work-place behavior multiple times a day for weeks, I had to tell an older woman to follow them. She literally cried to my supervisor that she had never been yelled at like that in her whole life and by a young lady, to boot. I’m in my mid-thirties. I had not yelled. I merely told her to do her job with regard to others. I’m a monster. I didn’t smile while reminding her of manners, and for that I’m a jerk of a woman. Except to all of the other reasonable coworkers who’ve been begging her to behave for weeks.

  3. Fast Science, Slow Life

    This article rings so true…. one thing that really bugs me is when I hear the word “young” used to describe junior female colleagues, when terms like “enthusiastic”, “energetic,”, etc. are used for males. Words that suggest professional promise as opposed to naivete. I was actually told once “I don’t believe how young you look” by a much older male colleague. Not just a colleague, actually, but someone whose budget I had a considerable influence over. And this was after two professional degrees and 8 years on the job. I’m sure he thought he was being flattering…. grrr.

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