2018 marked a century since women won the right to vote in the UK (decades behind New Zealand, the first self-governing country in the world where all women had the right to vote by 1893), but the way we view – and subsequently treat – men and women is still far from equal. Whether they’re in the office, on a sports pitch or walking the red carpet, powerful women in the workplace continue to be perceived very differently to their male counterparts.
DJ Martin Solveig sparked outrage at the recent Ballon d’Or awards when he asked inaugural female winner Ada Hegerberg to twerk (she, quite rightly, responded with a curt ‘no’). Solveig was quick to apologise, describing his comment as a ‘joke’ – but it’s very likely a joke he’d never have considered presenting to the likes of previous winners Messi or Ronaldo.
It’s not only how we speak to women; it’s how we speak about them, too. Gender bias – both unconscious and otherwise – is woven into our everyday language.
A study by Harvard Business Review found significant differences in how 28 leadership attributes were assigned to men and women. Men were described as ‘analytical’, ‘competent’, ‘athletic’ and ‘dependable’, while women were assigned adjectives such as ‘compassionate’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘energetic’ and ‘organised’. On the negative end of the scale, words ‘inept’, ‘frivolous’, ‘gossip’, ‘excitable’, ‘scattered’, ‘panicky’ and ‘indecisive’ described women; men were evaluated as ‘arrogant’ and ‘irresponsible’.
And all this adds up to more than just words – it has powerful real-life implications. Who would you rather hire: the ‘arrogant’ man who’s a bit too self-assured, or the ‘inept’ woman who sounds entirely incompetent?
The topic of gender bias becomes even more convoluted when you consider race. In her new book ‘Becoming’, former First Lady Michelle Obama discusses her frustrations around the ‘angry black women’ stereotype. She writes: “I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mindset, translated only to ‘angry’…I was now starting to actually feel a bit angry”.
This stereotype came into the media spotlight once more when tennis star Serena Williams’ received a number of penalties at the US Open Final and responded with outrage. Despite the Women’s Tennis Association branding the penalties as ‘sexist’, it was Williams’ response that hit the headlines. Media around the world portrayed her as an angry, aggressive and unhinged individual, fulfilling the trope of the ‘angry black woman’. For Williams – and many others – her anger on the court was about far more than the game of tennis. “I’m here to fight for women’s rights and women’s equality,” she told reporters after the match. “The fact that I have to go through this is an example”.
In the corporate world, a series of scandals at Facebook has led to COO Sheryl Sandberg being heavily condemned as a villain-like character in the media, while chairman Mark Zuckerberg has come off as the flawed yet forgivable tech whizz. Despite calls for both to resign, Zuckerberg is in a far stronger position; many of Facebook’s major investors are so focussed on him as a leader that even a mass exodus of senior leadership would be unlikely to have any major impact on investment.
The contrasting response to Sandberg and Zuckerberg is just one example of the different expectations on women in power versus men. It’s harder to become a female leader, yet those who are have higher standards placed upon them and face less forgiveness if they fall short. It’s time we recognised that, ultimately, what makes a great (or not so great) leader is an individual’s attributes – not their gender.
To create workplaces that are truly inclusive and diverse, we need to address the subtle gender bias that begins in our language – and the major implications it has for us all.
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