Much 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?