woman in medical face protection mask indoors on blue background

In other words: Gendered language and the fight for equality

Have you ever thought about referring to someone at work as a “strong woman”? Now, as a feminist who likes to hear women – and those who identify as female – being referred to as “strong”, surely it would receive a positive reaction?

Not quite. As much as I want everyone to realise the strength of women and acknowledge that in the workplace we continue to overcome many challenges, referring to a colleague as a “strong woman” is actually pretty patronising.

On the one hand there’s the insinuation that by saying one woman is strong, the others are, what, weak? That doesn’t sit right with me, as women who want equality do all in their power to lift other women up. A good mantra is that there’s enough good stuff to go around: “Her success isn’t your failure.”

But even more so, I applied the litmus test of whether or not something should be said to/about a woman: “Would you say this to a man?”

So, with the strong woman example, can you imagine a situation where someone who works in a non-physical role is referred to as “a strong man”? Didn’t think so.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sexism has become so ingrained in our language that sometimes it’s not even noticed. Here are some examples of things you don’t typically hear being said to/about men.*

What will your girlfriend make of the amount of travel involved in this role?

You’ve prepped for a job interview, researched the company, practised your elevator pitch and thought of brilliant answers to tricky questions. Only to have to answer a random question – not about your opinion or something to do with your experience or skills, but whether or not your significant other will allow(?!) you to do something.

You’re too handsome to be a scientist/engineer/HGV driver! You should be a model!

There’s nothing wrong with being a model, but there’s a lot wrong with suggesting that someone focus on a career that uses their looks instead of the one they have trained for. 

You may think this is a compliment, but implying that looks and other skills are mutually exclusive is actually fairly insulting.

Be a darling and get us some coffees?

First of all, there’s no place for words like darling, love, sweetheart in a professional environment. It’s 2021. Just don’t do it.

Secondly, the assumption that women are good at/men are less capable of sorting out refreshments or taking the minutes at meetings is frankly ridiculous. Also, occupying women in this way means they are distracted by menial jobs and therefore are less able to contribute to the best of their ability to conversations.

On top of this, it also suggests that the only value a woman brings to a company is her ability to boil a kettle, undermining the work she has put in to reach her current position.

What are your childcare arrangements?

Why do interviewers ask mums about childcare in interviews? And why don’t we hear the phrase “working dad” as often as we hear “working mum”? Or “Meet Jack, he’s responsible for our marketing and has three kids.”

There’s an incorrect assumption that mothers are always the primary carers, who will need to take time off work when a child is ill, for example. Dads just don’t get quizzed about how they will manage parental responsibilities alongside their jobs.

This makes it harder for dads in many ways. This almost invisible responsibility of fatherhood can make it harder for dads to push for flexible working in order to accommodate parental responsibilities, for example. But there’s no denying that parenthood is a bigger professional burden on mums than dads.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? With a family?

Oh, and you don’t have to wait until you have actual children before the discrimination starts. If you’re newly married or even just in your late 20s/early 30s, you may expect this question at any moment. 

But only if you’re a woman. Men don’t get asked about their family plans to the same degree as women do. Sure, from a logistical point of view it’s less of a big deal to an employer when a man becomes a dad, but at the end of the day discrimination is illegal and our uteruses have nothing to do with anyone else.

Asking questions such as these in interviews or appraisals can also make women feel like they can’t be as honest as they might otherwise want to be in case it damages their prospects, which isn’t a situation they should be put in.

Hysterical! Hormones! Bad!

“His emotions really get in the way of him doing his job. I mean, he’s probably crying in the toilets right now. Hormones!”

Need I say more? When men get angry or frustrated at work, labels like “emotional” or “hormonal” don’t get bandied about. So why is it OK to say that about women?

Ask John for some paracetamol. He’s the office dad.

Office managers do a really important job. Correction: several important jobs. One aspect of that could be that they are the go-to for everything from paper clips to paracetamol. That doesn’t make the female office manager the “office mum”, it makes her good at her job.

He’s such an airhead!

Fair enough if someone is disorganised – these things often do need to be commented on in the workplace. However, you wouldn’t call a disorganised man a ditzy airhead or, worse, suffering from “baby brain”, so don’t call a woman that.

We can do better

* I’d like to point out that Axonn is a very non-sexist environment and I’m proud to work alongside so many male and female feminists. My research for this article was mainly conducted via social media, i.e. I’m relaying horror stories that happen elsewhere!

There must be more examples of comments made to or about women that men just don’t have to deal with. Care to share your experience? 

Image credit: iStock/FotografieLink