Gender and language in the workplace


The language women use (and the language used about them) is as controversial as it has ever been. In her new book Speaking Up,  language and gender expert Allyson Jule uses the latest academic research to look at issues such as how language use and related ideas about gender play out in the home, workplace and online. asked her about how language used in the workplace – and outside it – affects women’s career progression. Given the extent to which language is gendered can we ever truly get to a more gender neutral language or is the best we can hope for greater awareness of the gendered nature of language?

Allyson Jule: When we consider how language has changed even in the last 100 years, I think we can be hopeful that, through education and awareness, we can better use language to liberate ourselves from sexist assumptions. If it was hopeless, we’d still be calling women Mrs. John Smith. Things change because we, as a society, want them to change.

WM: Do you think Artificial Intelligence – for instance, things like augmented writing tool Textio – will make a difference to gender bias in recruitment, although concerns have been raised about programmer bias?

AJ: We thought social media would be genderless, but it is not. There are a million ways we see gendered use of social media, chat rooms, texting, etc. I think all that AI could ever do is reveal our sexist assumptions about who is speaking and to whom. Can gendered language and stereotypes be used in a positive way, for example, recently there has been a lot written about the idea that the kind of leadership skills that women are supposedly good at are what we need these days. While that tends to stereotype women – and men, is a recognition of different styles of leadership at least a beginning [even if these are highly gendered]?

AJ: I would agree: considering leadership styles offers some hope of a deeper understanding of gender to celebrate and promote particular styles of leadership that emerge from more relational leaders. That relational patterns have traditionally been part of women’s work is now a gross oversimplification. Regardless of sex or gender, people who relate well to people do better at leadership. People-people excel in leadership roles. It would be wrong, however, to say that such  a style is experienced only in women. We know this is not true. Your book talks about sharing personal, intimate stories as a way that women communicate. Sharing stories has been at the heart of a lot of recent feminist activism and social media is a good forum for this kind of communication, although with a lot of backlash against women. Is this an example of gendered communication being used to successfully counter existing power structures?

AJ: Again, the tendencies of women are real and emerge from gendered experiences as children and young adults; that said, behaviours also intersect with culture, social class, level of education, location, etc. Stories are powerful regardless of who uses them. That we are more comfortable as a society if women tell stories only tells us that we are more comfortable with women when they tell stories. That is: it only reveals expectations. It doesn’t and can’t equate with ‘women’s ways of speaking’ for all time and in all contexts. If we ever say ‘women are like that’, then we have to ask which women are like that, when are they like that, and why are they like that. You also say that women’s language has been heavily scrutinised. Is it time there was similar scrutiny of male language and what do you think would work best in terms of promoting a discussion about language and gender with men? For instance, our work with parents involves case studies and interviews, but perhaps telling stories is not the way to go to reach men and get them more involved in the equality debate. People who run workshops with men on issues around parenting say the kind of things that work for women, such as story sharing, talk about ‘support and advice’, etc – don’t go down well with men who may prefer more ‘factual’ words like ‘information’. Do we need to find alternative ways and use different language to reach dads? Is this changing with millennial dads?

AJ: I think this is changing with millennial dads. Women’s language has been more heavily scrutinised because it has been the marginal voice in positions of power. The women’s movement was incredibly important here. However, as women in positions of power move to centre stage, such scrutiny loses its appeal. What impact is social media having on the language of young men and women? Is it less gendered or just differently gendered?

AJ: There is no doubt that gender plays a huge part in social media. We know, for example, that girls use more Facebook-types of connections while boys play more computer games. Both of these activities are ‘social’, but one is more revelatory, requiring more self-disclosure. This demand on girls and women to be more self-disclosing has often been the very thing that lessens their power. So it’s a two-edged sword: relationships enrich life in so many ways, but too much disclosure weakens one’s self-reliance and causes too much enmeshment in relationships above all else.

*Speaking Up: Understanding Language and Gender by  Allyson Jule is published by Multilingual Matters, price £12.95. It is available from August 1st.

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