Women’s Workplace Language

By Nagham Saade

Cover picture from themuse

Language is considered by many to be one of their most treasured abilities. It is a vital tool for communication and interaction.. This essential medium is used in various ways among numerous individuals depending on the environment and circumstance.. Linguistics are gender-separated and this separation is abundantly clear. One example of this split seems to be in the workplace. Women have become active participants in the workforce for the past few decades, confirmed by the National Women Law Center (NWLC) that women’s workforce participation rate hit 57% in 2020 compared to 62,4 % for men (Courtney Connley, 2021). The significant differences between males and females are evident in labor percentages and occupied jobs positions as well as in the language developed and implemented. This variation mainly refers to a wide range of aspects that we will explore and interpret to get a decent grasp and knowledge of women’s workplace language.

Let us commence by studying the differences in the way languages are applied by men and women. When we look at management roles, we can detect that the language used by women is slightly weaker than that used by men because they tend to lean to softer and kinder terms. The contrast between report-talk and rapport-talk reflects this. Deborah Tannen, an American author and linguistics professor, claims that females favor the latter, a style that fosters social affiliation and emotional connection. Whereas males prioritize the former, which focuses on exchanging knowledge with almost no feelings and emotion (Ben Davis, 2021).

Language can be gender-specific, for example, when women use uptalk, it is considered a sign of lack of confidence and hesitancy (debuk, 2015). Reducing a gender-specific trait to a stereotype is problematic. People ignore the truth that may mean something else, like empathy, politeness, or an interest in the discussion. Indeed, this hints at the tragedy that because women do this more, the trait is perceived as feminine, and by extension, weak. For example, women in the workplace may request “I was hoping you would review my work” instead of dictating it. If anything, it should not interpret them as being hesitant or doubtful but as a sign of kindness instead. Although not every pattern should be generalized negatively, there is still some truth laying there, like when females say: “I am no expert at it…” or “sorry, I just have a question to ask”. Such vocabulary logically shows the insecurity that does not stem from gender bias.

In addition to the bias nature of the workplace against feminine traits, remote work also poses a struggle for females. With the emergence of the pandemic, in-person employment transitioned to be a remote one. Unlike in-person, where females can still assert their dominance and adapt to the workspace, remote work allows only for the use of one’s voice. A survey showed that “45% of women business leaders found that women feel like they cannot speak up, and some of these women say that they have been ignored in meetings often” (Courtney Connley, 2020). Indeed, it is not a new phenomenon because men have historically been described as interrupting, mansplaining and appropriating. 

Furthermore, we can analyze the language used in recommendation letters. Those belonging to men consist of work-fitting words such as “competent and dependable or even organized”. Whereas ones belonging to women are composed of “indecisive, temperamental, gossipy, or even inept”. (David G. Smith, et al, 2018). Such distinction creates a wall of separation and makes it harder for women to gain the leadership roles they deserve due to bias and discrimination. 

On the other hand, we can notice another difference between the two sexes. Diving into the employment spectrum, we realize that candidates described as analytical are more likely to get the job than ones described as compassionate. Both words used have positive implications. However, one of them is more targeted and useful  in the workplace. While the other is emotion-related and does not fit into a workplace setting. So, language division does not only apply to the language both sexes use , but to the language used to describe them. David G. Smith, Judith E. Rosenstein (associate professors of Sociology at the US Naval Academy), and Margaret C. Nikolov (an independent statistician who previously taught at the US Naval Academy) used datasets showing the level of gendered language in evaluating leaders. They concluded that “the most commonly used positive term to describe men was analytical, while for women it was compassionate […]. The term analytical is task-oriented, speaking to an individual’s ability to reason, interpret, strategize, and lending support to the objectives or mission of the business. Compassion is relationship-oriented, contributing to a positive work environment and culture, but perhaps of less value to accomplishing the work at hand” (David G. Smith, et al., 2018). 

Now let’s dig deeper into the existing disparities between women.. Women, like men, tend to select the language they use based on the position they occupy; for example, a woman working as a secretary would use a different vocabulary than a woman who is a doctor or the CEO of a company. The secretary might prefer to use simple terms and phrases that are easy to comprehend to be understood by everyone. Whereas the doctor may choose more technical words and brief sentences since she expects the individuals she is working with to be more comfortable and familiar with such vocabulary. One piece  of evidence of this can be taken from our daily life. We may hear a doctor say: “The patient had pemphigus. We need to find the suitable treatment and convenient cortisol doses along with the other medications”. In contrast to what we hear from a secretary saying to a patient: “The doctor said you have to take this medication for a week and no need to worry. If you want more information, please refer to us during the stated work hours”. It is a typical choice of words that are used by most individuals within a field, but a woman’s use of simpler and easier to understand language tends to heavily scrutinized in a way that her male colleague would not be. 

The negative perception of women is primarily the result of how society portrays women. Likewise, how this attitude impacts many aspects of her daily life. Women are presumed to be weak or less capable, and seeing them in contexts unfamiliar to society creates a kind of shock.  This  makes it difficult to accept new ideas in a place influenced by years of  unfair views on women, which leads to an even worse view inflicted on working women. To illustrate this, an examination was created by MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt and filled by students to evaluate their female and male professors (SETs). The assessment alleged that these SETs evaluated women in different criteria than men “we contend that women are evaluated differently in at least two ways: intelligence/competence and personality” (Kristina M. W. Mitchell, Jonathan Martin, 2018). 

Two additional examinations on two professors were done and analyzed to confirm the hypotheses. One was anonymous, yet the other was not. Both professors gave the same course, materials, and assignments. When the results of the anonymous examination was compared to the non-anonymous results, it is obvious how students evaluated their female professors differently. Female professors were evaluated according to their appearance, which should not be a factor, and none of the students  did the same to the males. Female educators were criticized for their personalities far more than males, as female professors were held to a higher standard in relation to their personality traits. 

The next hypothesis proposed by this research is how women, are much more likely to be called teachers,  professor. This title only reflects how  society views women in academia. “0% of the students in the anonymous evaluations referred to males as a teacher and 5.5% to females” (Kristina M. W. Mitchell, Jonathan Martin, 2018)

This evaluation is the embodiment of indirect discrimination against women. It can be a tool to either recruit professors or repudiate them. “universities that place great emphasis on the results of SETs may be promoting discriminatory practices without recognizing it” (David G. Smith, et al, 2018). Therefore, the future of these professors is in the hand of such unfair evaluations, if taken seriously. That’s why it should not be criteria. 

One should not ignore that, on top of being emotionally driven while speaking, women feel constant guilt and fear their body language is also distinct from men’s. Actions can reveal alot about a person, ranging from their personality to their skills which is crucial in a  work environment. Although both genders have similarities in their body language, there is something to be said about gender-specific body language that the majority does. 

Body language of women is  a crucial field of study due to its unique and differentiating features. While it may help them flourish in their social and love lives, it is not the case in their professional lives and careers. We need to investigate what body language looks like and how coworkers and bosses will interpret it. The traits an  ideal coworker/CEO must own are leadership, outspokenness, decisiveness, and certainty. This description contradicts the actions and behaviors of women, which can be interpreted as being emotional, animated, and almost insecure or hesitant. Examples of this can be head tilting and nodding excessively .Head tilts and constant nodding conducted by women symbolize to the second party that they are fully focused on the conversation at hand. . However, in the workplace, this may be interpreted as showing  excessive emotions, over-enthusiasm, or as being generally  unprofessional. 

Moreover, women typically show what they are feeling clearly on their faces, so they may roll and widen their eyes or lick their lips without noticing (Sukanya Majumdar, 2021). Rolling eyes may give the impression to the speaker that you are bored or uninterested, widened eyes may be a sign of weakness and submissiveness, and licking lips shows nervousness.

Smiling is an important factor as well : we may find ourselves smiling out of kindness, but that is not acceptable in the workplace where your authority and seriousness should prevail, and as Carol Kinsey Goman (an international keynote speaker and specialist on how body language can enhance (or detract from) a leader’s effectiveness) claims “excessive and inappropriate smiling can be confusing and credibility robber” (Carol Kinsey Goman, 2019). 

It is unfortunate how the workplace is bound to match  traditionally masculine behaviors. Whereas character traits traditionally associated with femininity might affect a woman’s position and value while neglecting her genuine abilities and talents.

To sum up, the different aspects we went through together, as well as the different views and opinions we examined, target the unique behavior that women adapt in the workplace to fit in . These behavioral patterns may vary from one woman to another and may vary depending on the position occupied. So, whether women use verbal or physical language in the workplace, it differs from men significantly, likely stemming from gender bias at times and societal norms at others. With that said regarding females in the workspace, is there  a similar argument regarding race as well?

Works cited

Stroi, O. O. “Gender-Biased Language of the Workplace.” Discourse, vol. 5, no. 6, 2020, pp. 120–131., https://doi.org/10.32603/2412-8562-2019-5-6-120-131

Nash, Victoria. Gendered Language: Women’s Linguistics in the Workplacehttps://digitalcommons.northgeorgia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1827&context=ngresearchconf

Connley, Courtney. “Women’s Labor Force Participation Rate Hit a 33-Year Low in January, According to New Analysis.” CNBC, 8 Feb. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/08/womens-labor-force-participation-rate-hit-33-year-low-in-january-2021.html

Davis, Ben. “What Is the Difference between Rapport Talk and Report Talk?” Mvorganizing, 2 May 2021, https://www.mvorganizing.org/what-is-the-difference-between-rapport-talk-and-report-talk/

Smith, David G, et al. “The Different Words We Use to Describe Male and Female Leaders.” Harvard Business Review , 25 May 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-different-words-we-use-to-describe-male-and-female-leaders

Debuk. “Just Don’t Do It.” Language: a Feminist Guide, 5 July 2015, https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/just-dont-do-it/

Mitchell, Kristina M., and Jonathan Martin. “Gender Bias in Student Evaluations.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 51, no. 03, 2018, pp. 648–652., https://doi.org/10.1017/s104909651800001x

Majumdar, Sukanya. “The Body Language Mistakes Women Make at the Workplace.” Bonobology.com, 19 July 2021, https://www.bonobology.com/female-body-language-at-the-work-place-dos-and-donts-guide/

Goman, Carol Kinsey. “10 Body Language Traps for Women in the Workplace.” Troy MEDIA, 8 July 2019, https://troymedia.com/career-human-resource-information/body-language-traps-women-work/#.YWvK4RpBzIX.  

Connley, Courtney. “45% Of Women Business Leaders Say It’s Difficult for Women to Speak up in Virtual Meetings.” CNBC, 3 Sept. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/03/45percent-of-women-business-leaders-say-its-difficult-for-women-to-speak-up-in-virtual-meetings.html

Edited by Daniella Razzouk

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