The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
June 24, 2019

The barriers to female promotion have nothing to do with language

Are women deterred by particular terms, masculine terms, from applying for jobs? Unlikely, says Terry Prone.

THE thing about eternal verities is that some of them shouldn’t be eternal. Like the ambition one. When I started to prepare people for job or promotion interviews, years ago, I discovered quickly that if you asked a job applicant how ambitious they were, the answer was gender-specific. If they were male, they told you. 

If they were female, they faffed around, crimson from their collar bone to the roots of their hair, as if they had been asked how bad their kleptomania was.

Understandable, we thought. Understandable because, 40 years ago, women were only beginning to think seriously about careers. Up to then, the narrative, imposed early and often, was of marriage as an objective, an imperative, a validation, a beginning and an end.

“Happy ever after,” back then, meant going to university, if your parents were wealthy enough, mainly in the hope of meeting a rugger bugger Prince Charming and marrying him, retiring gratefully from the workplace you might briefly visit between graduation and nuptials.

Then, women’s liberation happened. Nell McCafferty and Mary Kenny and all the girls got vocal, and what they said, in essence, was: “Stuff this consort lark. Women are human beings. You got that? Human beings. Equal in everything. Including wanting great jobs, job satisfaction, and a lifelong career. Not just marriage and kids.”

At the time, we believed it was the recency of that mindset that explained why women prepping for job interviews went scarlet and developed mumbling incoherence when asked the ambition question. 

They were, we thought, just not that used to going for worthwhile posts and acknowledging that they, too, had the urge for progress and achievement. Even the women who were already exceptional, in that they were going for senior executive posts in business or consultancy posts in hospitals, even they flinched when asked the ambition question, as if to claim ambition would be to abandon modesty, decency, and anything approaching humility.

This would be temporary, we told ourselves at the time. 

As women made it up the ranks, as women internalised the equality meme, they’d stop this smirking, spurious disavowal of a desire common to all humans: to do well, get to the top, get to do interesting work with interesting people, and not have to answer to noodles of markedly less intelligence, simply because they were male noodles.

It didn’t happen. It didn’t even begin to happen. Instead, it became an eternal verity: If you ask a young woman how ambitious she is, she’s still overwhelmingly likely (unless previously coached and unless she’s watched every edition of every version of The Apprentice) to disavow ambition the way you’d disavow halitosis. 

That’s the experience of someone who’s been coaching women for decades. It might be subjective, I hear you say.

Here’s the really bad news that proves it’s not just me. Not even just Ireland.

A UK government agency site has just changed all its job descriptions to amputate words like ‘ambition.’ But the ‘A’ word is not alone. ‘Challenging’ and ‘leadership’ have got their comeuppance, too. Reason? The agency wants to attract more female candidates.

The government agency is the Institute for Apprenticeship, which is an extension of, and funded by, the UK’s Department of Education. This weekend, it’s been patting itself on the back for introducing ‘gender neutral’ language.

“Women are deterred from applying from something that has a lot of masculine language,” said the agency. 

We are striving for gender neutral language or probably leaning towards being more feminine, as it doesn’t put men off.

To be specific, they’re going to give the thumbs-down to language like ‘decisive,’ ‘active,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘competitiveness,’ ‘confident,’ and ‘intellectual’. Because they’re so male.

You may know woman who are decisive, active, competitive, confident, and intellectual, who love a challenge, but keep your mouth shut, or opt for duplicity, when you talk about them, because you have to have a male organ in order to be happy with such terms.

Les girls, according to this school of thought, are comfy only with words like ‘understand’, ‘kind’, ‘co-operative’, and ‘supportive’. Put in ‘holistic’, ‘healing’, and ‘caring’ and you have the whole bundle of terms favoured by the same group of women and more power to them. 

However, this preference for soft and fuzzy words dressed in pink, with spangly barrettes in their hair, does mean, according to this UK outfit, that these women don’t go for jobs or educational opportunities that use the other kind of words, the threatening kind preferred by men. 

The implication is that their careers, as a result, go nowhere and it’s up to all of us to change the way we talk, particularly in job specifications.

“Only 17% of women have jobs in the digital industry,” the woman speaking up on this topic stated. “I believe we can solve this partly with the language we use.”

The problem with that is multi-faceted, starting with the fact that if you look at areas such as plumbing and electrical engineering, the numbers of women employed are almost certainly even smaller than the number in the digital industry.

That doesn’t mean that either industry should go linguistic. The umbrella body for plumbers doesn’t make the assumption that it’s the U-bends that are the problem, although if they presented those terms to a random bunch of women, there’s a good chance those women wouldn’t like those terms. I’ve yet to meet a woman who volunteered affection for U-bends.

Same with electricity. Who knows what hatred of the terms ‘voltage’ and ‘amp’ lurk in the female population? The very words pay reverence to two men, for God’s sake: Alessandro Volta and Andre-Marie Ampere.

Tell you what. Let’s change those two terms alone and I bet you women will flood into being electricians in a flash, if you’ll pardon the expression. It would defuse the entire problem.

Or would it? Would it, really? One of the problems with this particular action by the UK agency is that it doesn’t seem to be based on any in-depth research.

In fact, the coverage doesn’t mention any research at all. 

It just states, as a bald fact, that women are deterred from applying for jobs by the use of particular terms, and states, as a further bald fact, that these terms are masculine. 

But if you take the 17% of women in the digital world, the reality is that the language is not the problem. When you have major campaigns, running on mainstream and social media, about the horrible way Silicon Valley treats women, it is frankly ridiculous to assume the reason they’re not rushing to be digitally-employed is because of terms such as ‘leadership’.

Furthermore, if you look at industries such as banking or Big Pharma, not only do they not seem to have a problem recruiting women, they don’t seem to have a problem promoting women, despite using shockingly male terms like ‘ambition’.