Sexist Linguistics at Work

Despite the many modern revolutions and innovations, gender still has a huge influence on how we all live our lives. Homes, schools, colleges and workspaces continue to be a source of disruption for women’s individuality and identity. While it is true that these environments are a reflection of our socio-cultural and political contexts, it is particularly concerning when gender discrimination and stereotyping manifest in multifaceted ways, with sexist labelling constituting a significant facet, irrespective of financial independence which theories preach as keystone to equality. It is dishearteningly common to encounter phrases such as 'bossy,' 'too soft,' 'too difficult,' 'emotional,' and even 'too ambitious' when women exhibit perfectly human characteristics akin to their male counterparts at our workplaces. This phenomenon underscores the complex and layered challenges women continue to face in professional settings. Priya*, sharing her experience in a male-dominated field like political consultancy says, “As a woman, you are often expected to be quiet and not state your opinion in a room full of men. There have been situations where I have been dismissed when I speak, and I’ve often had to assert dominance in such situations. Then you are called - loud and aggressive”. Adding to this Raghavi*, a social media expert at a major corporate giant says besides facing external expectations, women tend to self-censor due to the fear of being called or even perceived as 'unlikeable.

Women in the workplace face a challenging situation known as the “double bind” or assertiveness penalty. On one end they are perceived as too soft if they are warm and compassionate and too aggressive when they are assertive. As America Ferrera's character from Barbie says, "You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people... It turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault." If all this is for only talking or not talking about work, one cannot imagine how harder it would be to express emotions that may not be related to the ‘work’.

According to the Time Use Survey by the Ministry of Statistics, women shoulder most of the unpaid domestic services for household members and are the primary caregivers for dependent family members. Jhanvi*, a working mother says even if both the man and the woman of the house are breadwinners, it is the woman who is expected to fulfil the traditional roles pushing them to exhaustion, craving connection and support. Unfortunately, our work environments are not built with empathetic approaches to deal with this. While both men and women fall prey to this, it is women who are more affected. According to a survey by LinkedIn, 79% of the respondents agree that women are often judged more in comparison to men when they share their emotions at work and are called ‘weak’ or ‘unprofessional’.

A Call for Ally Voices and Ears

A harmonious atmosphere is an ideal but is it achievable with the larger socio-political ambience where plenty of actionables are due? How can linguistic practices be cultivated? Gita*, a marketing and communication professional shares her thoughts with us, and suggests colleagues, especially men and those in superior positions to be mindful of their practices. Active allies are the first steps to breaking the chain of sexist linguistics. An ally can help by actively listening to women and marginalised groups as they navigate the complex terrain of biased languages and labelling. They can fight gendered jargon or unconscious biases by advocating for inclusive language policies and challenging harmful communication patterns. Beyond avoiding derogatory terms, allyship lies in amplifying silenced voices, translating cultural idioms, and ensuring everyone feels empowered to express themselves authentically.

Role of the Management

The pervasiveness of gendered language in the workplace is often subtle, yet its impact is profound. Thus, the necessity to shed the assumptions that hold women back must be uncontested. Labels, often unconscious, perpetuate gender stereotypes and hinder career advancement. To combat this, management and leadership teams must take a proactive approach. Sheela*, author of a leading software company’s editorial, says, it should start with companies promoting awareness and education about gender biases. She adds that implementing inclusive language guidelines in communication and policies is essential. As several studies on women at work suggest, the practice has to start from the board rooms where they avoid using phrases such as ‘mommy track’ and reframing it as a 'flexibility track' or a 'family-integrated career' disrupting the negative connotations and empowering women to redefine their narratives of success. With that established, organisations have to go beyond on-paper awareness drills that are usually boring readouts of laws and policies, both of the country and the company. Discriminatory practices or sexist language that might persist without any check under the guise of "watercooler culture" must be challenged. Utilising non-gendered language when discussing a person's position, professional title, or occupation helps to challenge implicit biases.

The Larger Movement

The feminist movement has been a driving force in the fight for gender equality, seeking to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression and to achieve full gender equality in law and practice. Women's movements have been instrumental in achieving significant progress towards gender equality, such as the right to vote and equal access to education and employment across the world. However, there is a need to embrace a feminist perspective beyond numbers while discussing ‘women at work’. Several salient concerns such as stereotypes, microaggression tokenism and sexist labelling as discussed in this article often take a backseat in any study on women in the workforce. Talking to us about her experience as a field worker, Priya* says, "As a woman in the social sector, to secure equal opportunities, I've had to fight and set clear boundaries. Independence sometimes leads to labels like 'unapproachable' or 'strong-headed,' altering workplace dynamics. Let's redefine environments for women, ensuring authenticity thrives and stereotypes dissolve in the pursuit of genuine gender equality."

* names changed for anonymity

Join for authentic workplace conversations
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.