Why ‘Flawed’ men outlast ‘Aggressive’ Women: It’s in the language

power poseAggressive. Aloof. A real bitch. There are a litany of derogatory words we use to characterise female leaders. Men are given more ‘wiggle room’ in terms of the behaviours we expect or sanction, but women have less latitude. As discussed in the recent Huffington blog post: This is how we talk about female leaders (Hint: It’s not pretty) , Nic Subtirelu, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University assessed the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) 450 million words of text from magazines, newspapers, fiction and academic text from the last two decades for gender difference in language.

Dismally, women were labelled ’pushy’ twice as frequently as men despite the fact men are mentioned nearly twice as frequently as women overall in the COCA. Subtirelu found men were more likely to be describe as “condescending”; a term which can only be applied to those who are or believe they are in power.  On the other hand, pushy is comparable to being obnoxiously forward or self-assertive. The article details what we see everyday: Hillary Clinton being described as shrill, aloof, ruthless, icy, angry and frumpy; Angela Merkel as ruthless and frumpy.

Jill Abramson was described as pushy, stubborn, brusque and condescending by the media following her untimely removal as the first female executive editor of The New York Times. Her high profile removal was a mirror to that of Amanda Bennett, who was described similarly several years before when editor of the high profile Philadelphia Inquirer. She was ousted after just 3 years in 2006. In a recent opinion piece “Pushed off the Glass Cliff” in the Washington Post, she noted the only thing that had changed in the 7 years between Abramson and her own departure was: ‘Women now feel not only resentful, but also finally, entitled. Entitled to lead…to be paid equally. Entitled to be flawed… and to be fired, but also entitled to point out the obvious fact: Men with even more spectacular and difficult flaws than ours get not only longer tenures but also softer and more dignified landings.’

Incredibly, despite his own evidence, Subtirelu stated in his blog ‘Linguistic Pulse’, he was ‘suspicious of the possibility that these descriptions had an element of gender bias to them’. Why do the media insist on using condescending and gender biased words to describe inspiring, strong females? And how low do we have to sink if the researchers themselves can’t see the biased writing on the wall?


Taking a tip from Anglicans? Cameron reshuffles 1/3 of cabinet to make way for women

conservative reshuffle 2014Upon hearing the news that the Anglican Church would allow female bishops for the first time in history, practising Christian, Prime Minister David Cameron, described the news as a “great day for the Church and for equality”.

Clearly Cameron was feeling a bit of ‘divine inspiration’ as this week his own reshuffle led to the stepping down of Conservative stalwarts such as William Hague and Ken Clarke to make room for a round of female MP’s. This reshuffle is being seen by many as an attempt to sway female voters, since it’s just 10 months away from a new election.

As reported by the Guardian: ‘Tory sources have made clear that Cameron wants the “old lags” to move on to make way for women and younger men who will be promoted on the second day of the reshuffle on Tuesday’.

Today the Huffington Post UK  announced the promotion of Nicky Morgan as new education secretary; Liz Truss as new environment secretary; Esther McVey, the new employment minister; Anna Soubry was promoted to minister of state at Ministry of Defence; Priti Patel Exchequer secretary to the Treasury; and Baroness Stowell as the new House of Lords leader. In addition, Claire Perry is now Junior minister at the transport department; Amber Rudd Junior minister at Department of Energy and Climate Change. This should take Cameron close to his target of ensuring that a third of his ministers are women.

Not suprisingly, the backlash has been immediate. Quick to find gendered fault in refreshing the cabinet with new people over those who have held positions of power for 30-40 years, one senior Tory warned of tokenism: “This really is the worst form of tokenistic gesture politics,” one senior figure said. “Merit is out of the window.” No question then of how ‘meritocratic’ it ever was to have the majority of serving Conservative MP’s be white males?

Turning ‘aggressive’ into tenacious and other ways to banter with your boss

equality sign_2Much of our work includes one to one sessions with senior men on the benefits they’d personally gain if they played a more active role in improving gender balance at the top.  Recently I spent time with ‘Gary’, a C-suite executive in a multinational company. Gary insisted he had no issues promoting women but that ‘Roberta’, ‘the only woman on his team ready for the next step – was a bit too aggressive.’

Language often hides bias. I looked at him wide-eyed and innocently asked: ‘what, has she hit someone on the team?’ He looked puzzled and said it was nothing like that. When I asked him to explain her behaviours he said: ‘Well, you know, when she has a point she wants to make, she sticks with it’. I replied ‘Oh, so you mean she’s tenacious?’ He shook his head and said ‘Not exactly, she just fights her corner when she believes in something’. To which I said ‘oh, so you mean she’s passionate?’ He then smiled and realised I was pointing out that often the language we use for women is much harsher than for men demonstrating the same behaviours. We might describe a ‘Robert’ as ‘living by his convictions’ or being ‘compelling’.

The truth is Roberta may or may not be a great leadership choice. Her ‘style’ certainly put off Gary and it may do other people. The difference is that we need to be mindful of our choice of language when describing people. If we notice ourselves and others describing the same behaviours in men and women; but with different language, that’s a clear sign we may be  relying on bias and our gendered expectations as to how men and women should act.

Ask yourself and colleagues: How would you describe her if she were a man?



How Sweet it is: Working Mums Grew ‘Green and Blacks’

working motherMany of Female Breadwinner’s clients, despite working to improve their gender diversity, find maternity leave to be a big challenge. Interestingly, the progressive men, often those whose wives work as well, notice that working mothers are some of the most conscientious employees. They don’t have time to waste and are incredibly efficient. A coaching client recently explained: ‘I was considered high-potential before I had children, but I’m actually more productive since I’ve had my second son. I just don’t have the hours to be anything else. The irony is that I know I’m no longer considered a rising star!’

Forward thinking employers recognise it’s well worth the effort to retain a long time employee now on maternity leave. Josephine Fairley, Co-founder of the rapidly growing Green and Blacks, points out the advantages in the misleadingly entitled Telegraph article Maternity leave is a nightmare for employers. Fairley explained: “…In my experience, female employees make up for lost time in the wee small hours to get a job done, if that’s what it takes (and without being asked). I had two fantastic single mothers working for me, Cluny and Gail, when I was running Green & Black’s – and my absolute understanding of the tugs on their time turned out to be repaid hundredfold in loyalty, over the years. I’d like to propose to any employer of mothers out there that a shift in attitude might very well deliver the same willingness and fealty.”

If taken up by men more equitably, we anticipate shared parental leave from April 2015 will make young women less suspect as potential employees.

I Do: Removing Wedding Rings as a Career Aid?

MP900409769Even in this day and age; ambitious women sometimes ask me: “I just got married. Do you think this will reduce my chances of securing a new promotion?” I empathise with the question; when I became engaged 10 years ago, I didn’t wear my ring except at the weekends. My employer knew my boyfriend was in the UK and it would have forced questions as to where we were planning to live that I wasn’t ready to answer.

Many working women feel that being married changes the way their employers perceive them; as if they are about to leave to have children or become ‘less committed’ now that there perhaps is another breadwinner on hand.

Clearly, this isn’t a question I’m alone in answering.  A recent survey in the UK on reasons why women remove their wedding rings showed 35% of women regularly remove their wedding or engagement rings at work, believing appearing single increases their chances of getting a job or being promoted. A further third take their rings off when going for a job interview.

The Telegraph commented on the survey, “The research suggests many women worry that employers or prospective employers interpret a wedding ring as ‘about to take time out and start a family’, making her an “unattractive hire”. Men who wear wedding rings, on the other hand, do not face the same fears.” In fact, we often view married men as the most stable and hardest working. After all ‘they have a family to provide for’ – a 21st century reality we overlook for women.

Have you ever hidden or been tempted to hide an impending engagement or marriage by removing a ring?


Why the Most Successful Women Started as Failures

supportMeeting with a group of colleagues in Edinburgh last night, where I talked about a dismal meeting I’d recently had, I was reminded that failure is something all ambitious people share. The goal should always be to ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ when you’re experimenting with a new idea. Even so, setbacks are as demoralising as they are inevitable. Interestingly, a number of the world’s richest women achieved their success only after a series of set backs. In Britain, we are all familiar with JK Rowling’s plight as a struggling single mum, who received 12 rejections before eventually selling over 45o million copies of her world famous Harry Potter series.

In the US, Oprah Winfrey, is the most successful talk show host in the world and is worth $2.9 billion, but her career path was far from smooth. Winfrey was criticised by executives at a Baltimore TV station for being too emotionally involved in the story lines in her early career as an anchor. Instead of ‘distancing herself’ she capitalised on this difference and focused on turning it to a strength; her ability to connect and engage with people. Another media mogul, Arianna Huffington, openly acknowledges 36 publishing rejections for her second book and an unsuccessful political career under her belt. All this before she subsequently published 11 further books and sold her media company for $315 million in 2011.

Sara Blakely, is the world’s youngest female self made millionaire – but only as a result of failing the Law School Admission Test twice. After a brief stint working in Disney World Florida and a string a early career struggles, she became a successful entrepreneur at the tender age of 29 when she created the body-shape brand Spanx. Ultimately we need to be willing to learn that failure is not the final outcome. Using the wise words of Blakely, “I think failure is nothing more than life’s way of nudging you that you are off course”. Get back up, brush off and start again.

What failure has led you to a better path?

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