gender language

*Blog originally Published 29/09/2015

Today the Huffington post published an article about sexist language in the playground with the tagline Sexist Remarks Should be as unacceptable as racism or homophobia. In a recent blogpost on my website I also looked at the gendered language we use (often casually) in our everyday working lives to describe roles of men and women and how it serves to re-enforce gender stereotypes. I am re-publishing this post today for a working world audience and would be interested to hear your comments.

The spoken and written word are our main methods of communication and as such, are our most influential. Whilst we may find shortcuts or ‘labels’ a convenient way to describe people, we often underestimate the power these labels have to pigeonhole and to stereotype, especially when it comes to gender. In today’s blog, I want to highlight how two common labels used to describe men and women in the workplace, trap us into reinforcing gender stereotypes which perpetuate ‘separateness’ instead of unity.

‘Career Woman’

What does this frequently used label mean? Well its factual or literal meaning is a ‘woman with a profession or a job’, which seems fairly straightforward, so, why don’t we have the equivalent ‘career man’ in the male gender to describe a man with a ‘profession or a job?’

Well probably because the phrase ‘career woman’ is not generally used in its literal sense but actually more frequently in a figurative sense to suggest a mindset and set of characteristics belonging to a woman only in relation to her job. These characteristics may be positive or may be negative but they are certainly exclusive. For a man, however it is assumed that he will have career and a life outside of that and the two are not mutually exclusive. Therefore the separate label of ‘career man’ versus any other type of man, is not deemed necessary.

Obviously we need to put this into an historical context when the phrase ‘career woman’ was interpreted to mean a new ‘type’ of woman who chose career success instead of working in the home as a mother and a wife but given there are now so many women in the workforce who are also wives and mothers, what purpose does this label serve and why do we still use it?

Well like many phrases and words, we use them out of habit and often don’t understand their impact. But to me ‘career woman’ is a classic gender stereotype, which is long overdue for the dustbin of history. It is a narrow label, which reduces a woman to a one-dimensional being ignoring her abilities and desires that stretch across all areas of her life. We don’t need ‘types’ of women when it comes to the workplace, simply ‘women’ will do.

Working Mum/Mom (if you’re reading this in North America)

Factual Meaning: a woman who has a job and is also a mother

As with ‘career woman’ we know literally what this phrase means but the phrase is also heavy with figurative meaning – a sense of belonging to a tribe of similar working women who are also mothers. And whilst it is comforting to ‘belong’ the problem with tribes is that they are exclusive and they separate us. They separate us within our gender (in this case from working women who are not mothers and from mothers who do not work) and they separate us from the male gender. As we know, there are lots of men who are fathers in the workforce, yet ‘working dad’ is rarely used, especially when childcare and parental responsibility are increasingly being divided equally between men and women.

If we are to move to a gender equal society, we need to acknowledge that many working fathers also face the same challenges as working mothers and they need a tribe too. So why not make working dads feel part of a shared tribe and unite and all call ourselves ‘working parents’ or even just ‘working people’? If we continue to separate ourselves not only within our gender but also from other genders, then we will not move forward towards gender equality. Let’s make working dads feel part of the parent club.

It’s only words, I hear you say … Well yes and no.

The labels discussed in this blog are just two of the thousands of gender-based phrases and words, which stereotype men and women without us realising it. To achieve gender equality at work and life, we need to start using language that treats us equally such as ‘she has a job’ or ‘he has kids’. The quicker we signify through language that we have more in common with each than we do that separates us, the quicker gender barriers will break down.