Last month, when CNN anchor Don Lemon remarked that 51-year-old U.S. presidential hopeful Nikki Haley was “past her prime,” I was totally unsurprised. Lemon (who, we must note, is six years older than Haley) was commenting on her proposal to require mental-competency tests for presidential candidates over the age of 75, an ageist suggestion that – fairly, I think – made Lemon “uncomfortable.” Unfortunately, he defaulted to a little casual sexism to make his point.
“Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry. When a woman is considered to be in her prime – in her 20s, 30s and maybe her 40s,” he said during the Feb. 16 episode of CNN This Morning. “If you Google, ‘when is a woman in her prime,’ it’ll say, 20s, 30s and 40s.”
Far be it for me to argue with Google, but unfortunately for Lemon, his perception that a woman’s value declines with age is less an objective truth and more an example of the sexism that still infuses our world – and especially our workplaces. It wasn’t just viewers who heard him denigrate older women; his colleagues did too.
Depending on your social circles and where you hang out online, it can seem like our society has become drastically more progressive in recent years, and in some ways it has. In the business world, many companies are investing in diversity, equity and inclusion; according to a 2022 McKinsey and Company report, 53 per cent of Fortune 500 companies now have a chief diversity officer (CDO) or an equivalent role, and more than 60 of those companies hired their first-ever CDO after the so-called racial reckoning of 2020. But, the social mores that govern the way we interact at work haven’t really changed (yet), and it’s especially hard to keep up with the right language around the watercooler.
This is something New York-based feminist career strategist and speaker Cynthia Pong has seen in her own work. “I think it’s the gap between theory and practice, or between thought and action,” she says. “We may know what we ‘need’ to say these days, or what we’ll admit to publicly, but when it comes to our own workplaces or teams, we often still cling to what we’re used to, what we’ve been comfortable with and come to expect from the past.” That’s why ambitious women who speak up in meetings might still be characterized as “feisty” (be honest: Would you ever refer to a man that way?) or “aggressive,” while men are praised as assertive for the same behaviour.
So why do people keep saying the wrong thing? Because language doesn’t evolve in linear ways. “Normal change in language actually progresses a little strangely,” says Sheila Embleton, distinguished research professor of linguistics at York University in Toronto. “It usually takes a little while for something to start, then it accelerates more rapidly, then it kind of trails off.” (Imagine an S lying on its side – if you were to plot out linguistic changes on a graph, you’d see that they follow this curve.) So, while feminists began focusing on the ways sexism is baked into our language in the 1960s and 1970s, calling for people to stop using “he” as a generic pronoun for people of all genders, for example, we’re still on a multidecade journey toward more inclusive language.
That’s partly why, even though we likely speak about diversity, equity and inclusion more than we ever have, women are still facing sexism in the workplace. According to a September, 2022, report from the Representation Project – a global gender justice non-profit organization that uses films, education and research to challenge harmful gender norms and stereotypes – and Tresemmé, two-thirds of women experience sexist double standards, including conflicting messages, images and cues “that tell a woman how she is supposed to look, speak, and act. [These] ‘double binds’ are situations where every choice one makes results in being penalized.”
So, that woman labelled as “feisty” because, say, she asks a colleague not to speak over her during a meeting, might also receive feedback that she’s not quite ready for that promotion … because she needs to be more assertive when trying to land a new client or highlighting her accomplishments. According to the report, almost half of the women surveyed report being subject to this type of double standard in their professional lives.
“The paid work force is especially rife with double binds because it’s a space that traditionally did not include women,” says Caroline Heldman, executive director of the Representation Project and chair of the critical theory and social justice department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “The default social rules were set up to serve and accommodate men, forcing women to constantly edit and adapt themselves to fit in. For example, our data indicates that 41 per cent of women change how they present themselves and 39 per cent speak up less when experiencing these double binds at work.”
And of course, these double standards don’t affect all women in the same way. Younger women and LGBTQ+ women were most likely to experience this type of sexism, Heldman notes, and “women of colour, older women, overweight women, women with disabilities and queer women face racism, ageism, sizeism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, respectively – beyond their experiences of sexist double binds.”
The result is a social space that may not feel reflective of the way we’ve been learning to relate to one another, and certainly not one where we can be our authentic selves. “I generally don’t recommend the ‘bring your full self to work’ thing – unless you really work at a place where they have proven that it is, in fact, safe for you to do that,” she says. “Most workplaces may urge this, but they don’t do a good job of anticipating what that would actually mean.”
Instead, Pong suggests seeking out spaces where you can truly and safely be yourself, outside of work if need be. But that doesn’t mean ignoring the inevitable microaggressions. Julie Hansen, U.S. CEO of language learning app Babbel, recommends responding with “microinterventions,” statements or questions that draw attention to the problematic assumptions behind this type of language. For example, I’ve found asking someone to explain their sexist joke is remarkably effective at discouraging sexist jokes.
My not-so-secret dream is that I’ll get to stop pointing out sexist language in media, pop culture and IRL soon. But until then, I’ll be the one rolling my eyes at sexist commentary like Lemon’s – and calling it out.
How to spot gendered language in the workplace
Look out for … stereotypical language. Men are often praised for having “agentic” qualities (such as being ambitious, outspoken, driven), while women are more often rewarded for having “communal” qualities (collaborative, helpful, warm). People who don’t adhere to these stereotypes are often perceived negatively, especially at work – and this type of language can also contribute to a lack of gender diversity. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Finance found job postings for finance internships overwhelmingly used agentic language, which discouraged women from even applying.
Instead of describing ideal employees as “rock stars” and “winners,” consider highlighting the soft skills they’ll need, too, such as strong communication and interpersonal skills.
Look out for … gendered neologisms. Marketing departments everywhere have leaned on newly coined terms like girlboss, boss babe or She-EO to indicate that the boss or CEO in question is not your usual executive. That is, she’s a woman. The problem is, this type of seemingly positive terminology is actually patronizing – and still centres maleness as the default.
Instead of saying girlboss and mompreneur, say boss and entrepreneur.
Look out for … assumptions about gender. Not only should we stop assuming people have particular traits or qualities because of their gender, we should also work to unlearn the idea that people belong to only one of two genders. Workplaces that use gender-neutral language, respect pronouns and judge people based on their skills and experience, not their gender presentation, are actually safer, leading to more productivity, for everyone – including the company.
Instead of saying “Hey guys” or asking colleagues about their husbands and wives, say “Hey everyone” and ask about their partners or spouses.