Excuse me.

Updated: Oct 27

A week or so ago, I was catching up with one of my closest friends. Vivacious, intelligent, ambitious – she’s got everything going for her.

But the evening we met she was visibly upset. After a little probing, she shared that she’d been hurt earlier in the day as one of her male colleagues accused her of being ‘too keen’ at work.

The context: she’d been on a Zoom call with her team and had asked a series of questions to clarify the logistics about a project she had volunteered for. Natural, right?

Apparently not. According to her colleague, her questions made her seem ‘too keen’. Taken aback by these insensitive remarks, she calmly responded with a bitingly witty retort that arguably made her appear nonchalant – unfazed by his supposedly “friendly banter”.

But in truth, he had struck a nerve. For the rest of the day, his comments lingered anxiously at the back of her mind. Her concentration disrupted she became increasingly paranoid, wondering who else might think her over-eager, or worse, find her questions irritating.

I asked her what she imagined he might have said to a male colleague in her position. She thought for a moment before coming to the conclusion that most likely he would have either kept quiet; or said something complimentary about how his colleague was ambitious – a ‘go-getter’.

An interesting rhetorical turn was afoot.

Why was she was chastised for being ‘too keen’ while a male colleague would have certainly been lauded for his ‘ambition’? Why are women criticised for being ‘bossy’ when men are ‘assertive’? And why is the confident woman too often misinterpreted as arrogant?

Image Courtesy of Wix

While some maintain that criticisms such as these are in fact an expression of the aggressor’s inner anxiety when unconsciously threatened by a confident and curious woman, these subtle turns of phrase happen too often for this to be a truly convincing argument.

Deceptively innocent and unintentional, stock comments like the above shed light on the way our language and patterns of communication are heavily informed by gender politics. As the comments express, there is an evident discrepancy between the words we commonly use to describe women and men in the working environment, and they powerfully influence gender inequality and opportunity in the workspace.

How? Because simply put, for the woman receiving the comment, they are confidence-damaging and damaged confidence prevents women from accessing the same career opportunities as men.

This may seem like a jump for some; but hear me out. Firstly, note how often you hear women and girls introduce their opinions or ideas with either an apology or a disclaimer: ‘I might be wrong…’, ‘this may sound like a dumb question…’ ‘I’m sorry if I’ve totally missed the point…’. Then, consider why women feel the need to introduce a perfectly valid idea with a series of self-deprecating comments. Finally, think on this: if women are unconsciously using this type of language in their place of work, surely this articulates a level of self-doubt which will later manifest in a reluctance to go for that promotion, to fight for that pay rise.

I want to make it clear that I am absolutely not claiming that the verbal microaggressions I’ve dwelt on so far are the sole reason why a woman’s path to career self-fulfilment is arguably more complex, but the hard truth of the matter is that this type of language does contribute to the fact that women are, statistically, less likely to go for jobs where they don’t perfectly “fit” the criteria, and more likely to experience imposter syndrome in positions of leadership.

Clearly, gender inequity in our linguistic environment needs to be closely examined so that women and men start on a genuinely even playing field. Our first step in accomplishing this is to nurture an acute awareness of how our language echoes a history of disparity between the sexes.

Consider for a moment the history of our dictionary. Written by James Murray, edited and revised by a team predominately consisting of men, the dictionary was originally and exclusively a male text. In her recent review of Pip Williams’ novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, author and journalist Alice Vincent notes that, without women actively contributing to the dictionary’s production, certain realms of femininity (the realms outwith male authority and knowledge) were therefore excluded. Cast into a shadowy and unknown void, the words used within intensely female spaces: the birthing room, the nursery, the kitchen were significantly underrepresented.

Historically then, female experience and the language used to describe it, can be equated to an almost underground movement that has slowly surfaced as awareness about the gaps in our language have been exposed: the gaps that articulate femininity.

As Vincent goes on to highlight, exploring our dictionary today is a fascinating experience. Charting a history of the way words have been used in different contexts during different eras gives us an insight into the way our awareness of gender and gender inequality has developed over the years. As the fight against sexism has evolved, so too has our language – it is exciting to watch how those once hidden, taboo words used to describe uniquely female experience have slowly re-surfaced and been reclaimed. The linguistic history of gender therefore legitimises why we still have a gap in the language and words we use to talk about men and women, alongside giving us a real insight into the way our language exposes women’s historical disadvantage, a disadvantage that we still feel the ramifications of today.

But what scares me the most is the way the gap in our language not only disadvantages women, but also harms them in the wider sense of social security.

Jackson Katz in his 2012 TED Talk ‘Violence against women’ perfectly articulates the way our language is easily manipulated to nurture violence against women:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”

Note how, in each of these examples, the focus has shifted from the perpetrator to the victim. Katz goes on to emphasise that ‘there’s no active agent in the sentence’. Where is the person who has committed the crime against women? And why have they been taken out of the equation?

Power, privilege and historical advantage seem to always win out, because we aren’t calling it out. So, let’s start.


If you enjoyed this article please feel free to share and support us by subscribing below.

If you wish to explore this topic further, Tell Me A Tale recommends:

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words

Alice Vincent, ‘What the dictionary can tell us about feminism’

‘Violence Against Women’, Jackson Katz

‘Rifle’, Rudy Francisco

*On language, toxic masculinity and how this damages and disadvantages boys and men.

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