The words we use to describe successful people are different for women and men – and the words we use for success typically describe traditionally masculine traits. This is a problem because, in the now-famous words of Justin Trudeau, it’s 2015 (or 2016 if we want to be particular). Really, we should be past this by now. Instead, the Australian has today shown us – again – that when it comes to gendered descriptions of achievement, we have a very long way to go.
The Australian just published its annual list of the 30 most influential people in higher education. The list includes five women, four entities that are not, strictly speaking, ‘people’, and the remaining 21 influencers are men.
The list is unsurprising in its general makeup. 17% of the list is female, which is consistent with the proportion of women in positions of business influence more generally. That three of the list are members of the current government and two others are either politicians or closely aligned to politics is also to be expected.
I began reading the list and was immediately struck by the language used to describe these influential people. In particular – and unsurprisingly, given my particular interest – I noticed how the language used to describe the characteristics of influential men was different from that used to describe women.
Some of the terms used to describe the men were: ambitious; reformist; focused; consultative; a born salesman; has political sway; innovative; entrepreneurial; influential; a political animal; resilient; admirable; buzzes with excitement; very funny and droll; has gravitas; hugely relevant; in demand; assured; clear-eyed; highly credible; cranky; crafty and crinkled; imposing; a terrier; a stayer; sharp; witty; Machiavellian (as a positive trait); charming; never fazed; savvy; confident; independent; mover & shaker; scholarly; dauntless; a poster boy for persistence; and hard working.
And the women: a fantastic communicator; savvy lobbyist; on board the Turnbull innovation train; a world champion in finding consensus; pragmatic; supports a reform narrative; an engaging straight-talker; tough; cool; the single most powerful medical researcher in the land; an advocate; has the courage of her convictions; a distinguished researcher; poster girl for the Turnbull government’s innovation future; she’s the ‘real thing’ (I’m still confused about that one); an award-winning chair; knows it is lonely at the top for women in science; and unflinching.
Differences in describing the traits of women and men
The first thing I noticed that is different between these two lists is that it seems to take more words – whole phrases or sentences, in fact – to describe women’s capabilities and achievements. Men’s, on the other hand, can be described in powerful single words. Men are ambitious, assured, imposing, charming, savvy, confident… etc. Women support other people’s agendas, have achieved a particular distinction, are willing to stand firm even in the face of negativity.
The second thing I noticed was the dearth of positive overtones in the ways the women are described. The overall sense is that women get there in spite of it all and have to be tough and cool cucumbers to make it, while men are there because… well, just because they’re these great guys, you know (a nod to Zaphod Beeblebrox here, fantasy fiction’s best loved narcissist).
The third thing I noticed was that men get all the ‘leading’ words – ambitious, confident, independent, hard-working, assured, credible – while women get all the ‘caring’ words – supportive, communicative, consensus-seeking, engaging.
And the fourth thing I noticed is that the women are spoken of in relation to the achievements or agendas of powerful men. Nalini Joshi is supporting Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda (in fact, according to the list, she is a primary reason Malcolm Turnbull got his innovation train underway in the first place); Michelle Simmons is the poster girl for Turnbull’s science and innovation agenda; Belinda Robinson apparently herds cats for a living and found support for Christopher Pyne’s unpopular reforms (but is now on the Turnbull innovation train); Vicki Thompson, meanwhile, managed to rally a lack of support for the same reforms but is now – thank the stars! – on board the Turnbull innovation train. Only Anne Kelso seems to avoid being portrayed as a woman supporting a male agenda or travelling on a very crowded train, and that might be because – in the words of the article itself – she already has her work cut out for her.
And the problem is?
The problem is that the way the people on this list are described shows a consistent difference in language based on each individual’s gender.
Because our society has a legacy of men being the most powerful in political, social, economic and educational roles, with women the largely invisible supporters of male success, the words we associate most easily with power and success are the words that describe masculine qualities. Change should be a relatively simple matter of applying those words to women as well as men, but the human psyche – at least that of a journalistic nature, it seems – finds this very difficult to do.
What would it look like if it was different?
Let’s try it. Here are a few sentences that could be used to describe these women differently, and a few that could also be used to describe some of the men a little differently too, just for fun.
With single-minded assurance and a knowledgeable eye on the future, Vicki Thompson has driven a well-constructed and ambitious reform agenda through the Go8, heralding ground-breaking change to the way research is funded in Australian universities.
Universities Australia Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson, has brought her confidence and clear-eyed understanding of the sector to achieve remarkable results in a short time.
Michelle Simmons received a phenomenal $46m to develop the world’s first quantum computer. An award-winning scientist with an impressive international reputation, her work has placed Australia at the forefront of innovation in the sphere of quantum computing.
Nalini Joshi is the University of Sydney’s award-winning Chair of Mathematics. Aside from the world renown she has as a leading researcher in her field, Nalini has a clear and consistent approach to gender equality. She firmly believes that unless unconscious bias is addressed in tandem with practical steps to address inequality, change will be slow in coming, if it ever does.
And for the men:
Simon Birmingham’s consultative approach and desire to advocate for consensus across the University sector has made him a popular choice of Education Minister. His excellent interpersonal communication style will be sure to help him garner support for the Turnbull reforms he is supporting.
As the new chair of Universities Australia, Barney Glover has much to offer the institution, bringing his capacity to develop narratives around collaboration and cooperative endeavour. Many Google executives have complimented Barney on his gentle approach to the delivery of reform ideas on behalf of the government.
Brian Schmidt, the much-valued new VC of ANU, has been applauded widely for his research achievements, including the conferral of a Nobel Laureate. As a politically aware communicator, Brian has a list of influential people he can call on for support when needed. This should stand him in good stead as he settles into his new role.
Hopefully by now you’ve got the general idea. Language matters. And making conscious efforts to use language that is non-gendered when describing people’s achievements is extremely important as we move towards a more gender equitable world.