Why the Words We Choose Matter Part 2 – Beyond Dictionary Definitions

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The meaning of words and the context in which they are spoken or written have real impact. We internalize messages that are conveyed within the meaning of words chosen.

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at a kids’ baseball game. A group of 11 year old boys take the field. The sun is scorching, but they are eager to win the game. A rookie pitcher takes the mound. He draws back and slings the ball. The ball arches high and bounces an entire foot before the plate. The catcher throws up his face mask and scrambles to get to the ball. A runner is coming in from third. While the catcher is scrambling, you hear a group of men chuckling in the stands. One leans over to the other fathers sitting near by and says “Did you see that? That kids throws like a girl.” …

Let that sink in for just a second.

Did you see that?

That kid throws like a girl!


What hidden meaning is conveyed in this phrase? Have you ever heard anyone use this analogy to put down a boy that does something poorly? Have you ever heard anyone tease a boy about the way that he runs? What do people say? They often say “he runs like a girl.” Do you think there is any hidden meaning in these words? What do phrases like these say about girls and women?

Think about the reality of this sentiment — if a boy performs poorly, people equate it to the way a girl would do it. This statement implies that girls performance is inferior – kids internalize and understand the social implications of these words often without realizing it. Always challenged the notion of #LikeAGirl by interviewing men and women, girls and boys about the meaning of these phrases. The short commercial they produced has a powerful message – Check it out here by clicking on the link #LikeAGirl by Always TM)

Kindergarten to Performance Reviews

Jump ahead twenty years. Women are more likely to be praised at work for being nice, for being agreeable, conciliatory, and communal and criticized for being too assertive. Words used to describe their performance are gendered and carry meaning beyond the dictionary definition. Men are more likely to be praised for leadership, directness, and decisiveness and criticized for being too soft.

Gendered Speech, Expectations, and Performance Reviews.

One of the foundational characteristics of organizations is communication – verbal, non-verbal, and symbolic. 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, and by their ideologies..

How do you think gendered thinking and language translates on performance reviews?

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Research consistently shows that gender bias still influences performance reviews and the reviews tend to favor men and the socially constructed characteristics believed to be associated with being male like assertive, decisive, and analytical. Gender roles, gender bias, and beliefs about men and women’s behavior impact men and women differently.

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 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.

Gendered Expectations and Stereotypes

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.

Why Most Performance Evaluations Are Biased, and How to Fix Them, Harvard Business Review, 1/11/2019


The fluidity of these boundaries is expanding, as they should, but the needle hasn’t moved as far as some think. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 165 years for women to reach gender equity in North America. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait 165 years.

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. It is time to shyft the status quo.

By Kristin Heck Sajadi, Founder and CEO at Shyft Strategies, LLC Sajadi is a sociologist, entrepreneur and developer of the Shyft5 TM program – helping individuals and organizations build social awareness as a business asset to shyft the status quo.

Shyft5 TM program tackles challenges and builds awareness—the benchmark for effective communication, productive interaction, and thriving cultures in today’s organizations.

At Shyft Strategies, we help you 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.