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Bias and Barriers

Why the Words We Choose Matter

Bias and Barriers

Gendered Speech, Expectations, and Performance Reviews.

One of the foundational characteristics of organizations is communication. The way an organization communicates tells us a lot about its culture, its character, and the relationships within it. Organizational communication styles are influenced and created by the people within it, by their beliefs, by their ideologies, and by their individual histories and biographies.

Seeing the Hidden Meaning Within Our Words

Have you ever thought about the words you use when you communicate? Have you ever stopped to think about the context within which you use those words and whether they convey meaning beyond your initial intent? Have you thought about the implicit bias embedded in common phrases and comments frequently used?

How we communicate conveys meaning beyond the confines of the specific words we choose, and the impact can be significant.

I recently visited a friend’s house on a trip back home. It was a great mini reunion. We have been friends for over thirty years, and we hadn’t seen each other in several, so we had a lot of catching up to do. Her husband is an amazing cook, so while he worked the kitchen, we enjoyed catching up over a glass of wine. I glanced at the refrigerator, and I saw the tell-tale proud parent monikers – magnets and school papers. I glanced at the one with A+ 100% written in large bold letters across the top. A perfect spelling test. The A+ 100% is what caught my eye, but it was the teacher’s comment that struck me.

Underneath the grade was the comment “Beautiful Handwriting.” As a sociologist and businesswoman that knows all too well the gendered nature of language descriptors and the long-term ramifications, I took notice. I couldn’t help but turn to my friend and say…

“I just have to tell you that you need to watch the comments that are coming back from this teacher and others. Research shows that girls tend to be praised for being nice, neat, quiet, communal, rule-followers, while boys are praised for effort, accomplishments, and achievements. This may be a one-time event, but if it isn’t, you should address it with your daughter for sure and maybe the teacher. Let your daughter know that you are proud of the effort she took to learn all the words correctly and to top it off, she wrote in a way that easily conveyed her knowledge (legible handwriting).”

Ok, I can hear it now – “Are you kidding me? Is this person really getting worked up over a simple comment like ‘Beautiful Handwriting’ on a spelling test?” – I get it. If it is a one-off, a onetime incident, then I agree, it is ‘no big deal.’ But I am trained to look for patterns that have systemic consequences. One simple comment on one spelling test is inconsequential, but if that comment is representative of a larger trend, then we have something that warrants attention. Trends in communication and in society create patterns in outcomes. And we can measure and quantify those patterns, correlations, and outcomes.

My friend’s daughter did have perfect penmanship for a six-year-old. I agree with the teacher. But I challenge you to think outside the box.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Do you think that “Beautiful handwriting” is a common comment on papers? Do you think the teacher would have put that same comment on a boy’s paper in the class? What other comments could a teacher put on a perfect spelling test? Think about it this way, if you have a child that does well on a test or an assignment, what do you want praised? Why?

In a capitalistic society like ours, meritocratic ideals permeate our culture. We learn from an early age that achievement and success is valued, praised, and pays dividends. We learn through a systemic process of socialization in major institutions, like school, that if we work hard, we will be rewarded with praise and typically good grades. This same ideology correlates with our culture’s love of individualism—success and failure are tied to the actions of the individual. If we are successful, it is because we worked hard; if we aren’t successful, it is because we didn’t work hard enough—we didn’t show enough resilience, persistence, or grit.

Back to my friend’s daughter’s school paper…the words chosen matter.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The words chosen convey meaning. The words “beautiful handwriting” tells the student what is valued by the teacher. They tell the student what she needs to focus on to continue to get praise in the future. Would any different meaning be conveyed if the teacher had written “Great Job! I am proud of your effort!”? Would this leave the student with a different message? The meaning of words and the context in which they are spoken or written have real impact.

Kindergarten to Performance Reviews

Jump ahead twenty years. Women are still more likely to be praised at work for appearance, for being nice, for being agreeable, conciliatory, and communal.

How do you think this translates on performance reviews?

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Research consistently shows that gender bias still influences performance reviews and they tend to favor men and the socially constructed characteristics believed to be associated with being male – assertive, decisive, analytical, etc. Masculine characteristics that tend to be socially associated with men are defined as leadership characteristics. Feminine characteristics that tend to be socially associated with women are not. Women have made major in-roads into the high-skilled occupations over the past half century, but pay, hiring, and promotion disparity still exist. Women are held to higher standards of competence and exhibiting ‘warmth’ relative to men (American Sociological Review 84(2) p 250). They must go above and beyond to prove worthiness of attainment of higher-level positions.  Men are given more leeway, in performance reviews, to be assertive and to speak up and to dominate the conversation than women. Men are still more likely to be praised for effort and contributions that directly correlate to the bottom-line while women are more likely to be praised for working well with others and for fostering a nice work environment. Stereotypes, often based on race, class, and gender, still impact a great deal of decision-making going on within our organizations.

A research team at Stanford found that performance reviews for women tended to give vague feedback that gave little information on how to improve or advance, while the men received longer reviews with specific comments on their technical skills and how they contribute to bottom-line. In open-ended questions and comments, traditional gender stereotypes seeped through.

People varied in what criteria was important or valued, and these patterns of variance often followed gendered expectations. The majority of criticisms of women’s personalities were about being too aggressive, where the majority for men’s were about being too soft.

The fluidity of these boundaries is expanding, as they should, but the needle hasn’t moved as far as some think.

Gendered Language in Real Life

Just like the comments on my friend’s daughter’s spelling test, people use terms and phrases in everyday work-life that continue to illustrate gender inequality.

My husband is a surgeon – a field that is still dominated by men. He recently came home from work and told me about a conversation he had with his OR staff at the surgery center where he operates. He overhead a group of male nurse anesthetists and other OR staff referring to their female counterparts and colleagues as girls. He interrupted the conversation and interjected – he told them that the female colleagues that they were referring to were women, not girls.

Once again, I anticipate questions about the significance of a simple word like girl vs woman. And once again, I ask you to step back from your initial response and ask yourself why do you think these statements matter? What does the word girl mean? What do you picture when you hear the word girl? Do the individuals using the word ‘girls’ refer to their male colleagues as ‘boys’?  Do girls and boys typically occupy positions of power, authority, or leadership? Gendered terminology carries meanings well beyond the textbook definition. Words like girl, when talking about an adult, in the context of work and the roles occupied, is demeaning. It conveys hierarchy, value, and power in this context.

Building awareness of gendered language bias is a key asset to combat it.

Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

We must be open to thinking differently and questioning the words we use when we use them. No organization, leadership team, or individual is immune from the significance of gendered language.

Gendered expectations of behavior impact everyone in work environments. There is no one unilateral fix for our gendered society and gendered language, but it is time to become more aware of the words that we choose and why they matter.

Shyft5 TM is a new way to tackle challenges and build awareness—the benchmark for effective communication, productive interaction, and thriving cultures in today’s organizations.

At Shyft Strategies, we help you uncover the obstacles and barriers preventing open and honest discussions that are necessary for us to effectively navigate today’s new business and human capital reality. The first step to moving forward is increasing awareness. Awareness isn’t just learning a new fact or statistic. It is connecting the dots between what is and why, so that we can consciously and cognitively shyft to what can be and how.

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