Is negative language holding women back at work? - Women's Agenda

Is negative language holding women back at work?

Last year, The Australian Financial Review published a study that highlighted gender gaps in earnings by country. According to the newspaper, “Countries in Asia have some of the worst gender pay gaps in the world and while Australia’s not the worst-performing western economy, New Zealand puts it to shame.”

Bloomberg (a privately held financial software, data and media company headquartered in New York City) pooled the data into a list of 36 countries, indicating the biggest pay gaps by gender. Australia, Canada and the USA performed badly, Australia coming in at number 17 with a gap of 16.4 per cent between what men and women earn for the same position.

Women Don’t Ask, a book by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, lists many quotes from women who simply don’t feel that they deserve the same pay as men. Emma, a social science researcher says, “I realised that I could have really negotiated for much more but I didn’t. Because I accepted, ‘Oh, I want to tie in with the range. I should feel lucky I have this job’.”

“In many small ways, it’s as if men have little plus signs next to their names and women have little minus signs,” says Virginia Valian, a psychology professor who wrote Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.
Valian speaks about a term she calls ‘cognitive errors’. She suggests that both men and women attach traits and language to each sex often without being consciously aware that they are doing this.

“Once you learn about how (these biases) work, you tend to be more thoughtful about how you make your own decisions,” says Shelley Correll, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and a professor of Sociology at Stanford University. “We’re not being biased because we’re bad people. We’re often biased because we’re in a rush.”


In an age when we have so much information to assess, these cognitive shortcuts are common. “When we process a lot of information in decision-making, such as evaluating candidates for a position, we unconsciously use cognitive shortcuts, including gender stereotypes, to speed the process,” Correll explains.
“Men tend to be evaluated more positively than if we didn’t know their gender and women tend to be evaluated more negatively than they would be if we didn’t know their gender. Our standards tend to shift whether we’re evaluating a woman or a man…he gets what we call a leniency bias.”

One study from Women Don’t Ask revealed that eight times as many men as women graduating with master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon negotiated their salaries. When it was a man negotiating, they were able to start on a salary of 7.4 per cent (or about $4000) more. The book suggests that “the gender gap between men and women might have been closed if more of the women had negotiated their starting salaries.”

Recently, The Huffington Post came out with a list of words that are only ever used to describe women. Among them: mousy, sultry, hormonal and bitchy.

“I first started thinking about (the language used for women) when Girl With A Dragon Tattoo came out,” says Shawna Hein, 28, a user experience designer from Berkeley. “It’s a whole action series where the main character is a bad ass, and yet she’s called a girl. You never see an action hero with boy in his name.”

So, what is holding women back? According to the Global Leadership Forecast ‘leadership report’ compiled by international research company DDI, “In all major global regions, women were more likely than men to fall off the management ladder before reaching the top,” and, “At all management levels women were less likely than men to be named high-potentials.”

Sara Laschever says that women need to get better at asking the tough questions, including pitching for a better salary. “With women’s progress toward full economic and social equality stalled, women’s lives becoming increasingly complex, and the structures of businesses changing, the ability to negotiate is no longer a luxury but a necessity,” she says.

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