“Her style sometimes grated”, The New Yorker reported, “her personality was an issue”. You may think that executive editor Jill Abramson’s dismissal last week from the New York Times doesn’t affect you, but think again. It is significant for all working women and poses questions across the Atlantic too. Why? Language, gender and stereotype in the workplace.
Words like “slut” or “bitch”, gendered speech like “that takes bollocks” to denote courage, and insults like “he throws like a girl” to signal weakness, these are all obviously sexist. But what about the language that goes under the radar in offices up and down the country every day? Nuanced, ambiguous yet incredibly damaging and potent.
“‘Mercurial’ is a word you hear used for her a lot,” one female New York Times reporter commented, implying her former boss was volatile, following the news of Jill Abramson’s sacking. Words such as “stubborn” and “pushy” soon dominated the headlines, quickly followed by the labels “polarising”, “brusque” and “abrupt”. It was a Greek chorus loud enough to drown out the serious accusation for her dismissal: that her axing was due to her reasonable demand to be paid as equally as her male predecessors.
New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger has denied any accusation of gender bias yet still issued a stinging takedown of Abramson that could surmise any of her male contemporaries: “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”
Try and forget the pay discrepancy story for a moment and simply concentrate on language and the expectations women placate to exert authority with one foot stepped back. Jill Abramson’s story shows us all what happens when a woman throws her ball like a man. She gets knocked out of the game altogether. She’s told it’s her fault.
Working women are adept at the highly-skilled art of tightrope walking, so much so we do it now without challenge. The exhausting balancing act that asks so much of us, compromising a part of ourselves to achieve success. Assertive? Yes, but never aggressive. Commanding? Certainly, but always with a smile. Behave too professionally and you’re an ice queen, show too much emotion and you’re unstable. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, told us all to ‘Lean In‘ in her best-selling book and that’s what we did – 1.5 million of us to be exact. Abramson has shown us exactly what happens when we lean in too far and without the Geisha manners.
The reality is Sandberg’s empowerment manual expects a lot of compromise from women if they wish to become a success at work. We’ve got to smile even when we don’t feel like it, we’re encouraged to substitute “we” for “I”, and we’ve got to put up with language such as “stroppy”, “difficult” and “mouthy”. It’s a feminist manifesto that accepts an unsettling premise that women must mould themselves around their sexist surrounding, not the other way round. It assumes that landscapes and language can never change.
The #BanBossy campaign learned this the hard way; led by Sheryl Sandberg and backed by Beyonce, their commitment to ban the word sparked question marks. How can banning language rectify the sexism behind its usage? You can burn a book but the ideas still remain – it’s a psychological issue not just a structural obstacle. Jill Abramson’s sacking has shown us all that we have a media-endorsed problem with sexist linguistics. Words such as “pushy” or “condescending” still permeate our language, our offices and our newspapers. When it comes to defining professional women, words still scratch away at confidence.
Look a little closer at gender and confidence in the boardroom and recent statistics may not surprise you. Not only do women make up only 17 per cent of board directors of the FTSE 100 companies, a study by the Fawcett Society found that 51 per cent of women and men from middle management to director level identify stereotyping as the major hurdle facing women at work. More startling, a recent study in the US by global management strategists Strategy& found that over the past decade, 38 per cent of women were forced out of the chief executive role compared to just 27 per cent of men. It doesn’t take a chief strategist to work out a connection between these numbers – the glass ceiling is still pretty sturdy and it’s language that is helping keep it double glazed.
Jill Abramson’s story is our story. Women are still struggling to get promoted and, when they do, their behaviour is often analysed negatively as aggressive or unfriendly. Women are often subjected to unfair emotional judgements based on behaviour: how we are perceived as opposed to how we perform. For Abramson, her leadership was subjected to stereotype and caricature that was ultimately used as evidence of a morale-drained newsroom.
Maybe Abramson was paid as equally as her male predecessors, maybe she wasn’t – no doubt there will be a court case to find out – but what’s equally as important is the language batted around in the press to rationalise her overnight sacking. That language will be used against us too so let’s not gloss over the subtler gender bias, let’s call it out.
Have you experienced gender bias or sexist labels at work? Tweet us your examples @Feminist_Times.
Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.
Photo: The New Yorker
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