One Language. Two Standards

use of language - 2 silhouette heads surrounded by coloured question marks

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

Ever think about whether we talk to men and women in the same way – at least when we intend to?

This month, we’re exploring Use of Language, the 7th of our 8 Inclusive Behaviours(SM).   Today, I want to share some research that shows how, even when we believe we’re being meritocratic, our words betray us:  what we say to (or about) women tends to be something very different to what we say to (or about) men.

As the renowned American psychologist and linguist Noam Chomsky said: The structure of language determines not only thought but reality itself.   Meaning, the words we use don’t just betray our thinking, they also shape reality around us.

What we say in performance evaluations
Research has shown us over and over that the way we evaluate the performance of women (and other members of underrepresented groups) differs significantly from the way we evaluate the performance of men.  For instance, men tend to be assessed on potential whereas women’s experience appears to outweigh potential.  As an example, we might say in a man’s performance appraisal:  He hasn’t had the opportunity to experience this role, but we are confident that he has all the capability to succeed.  In contrast, evaluating the performance of a woman, we might say: She has not had the opportunity to get any real experience, and so it is a gamble to put her in that role.

Similarly, when it comes to judging people’s mistakes, countless performance evaluations show that people of colour are nearly twice as likely to have a previous mistake mentioned in the assessment than white people.  And we know it’s not because they make twice as many mistakes.

As a result, women (and members of other underrepresented groups) tend to fall behind when it comes to career advancement and compensation.

What we say to our female entrepreneurs
Another well-documented divide is how we think about women who run businesses.  As this HBR article shows, the different way we think about women and men running businesses is betrayed by the words we use to describe their capabilities.

A hidden recording of conversations within Venture Capital (VC) firms reveals that female entrepreneurs are perceived as less credible, less trustworthy, less experienced and less knowledgeable.

When describing an average male entrepreneur, the following sentiments were captured:

  • young and promising
  • arrogant but very impressive
  • aggressive but a really good entrepreneur
In contrast, the average female entrepreneur was described in these terms:
  • young and inexperienced
  • lacks network contacts and in need of help to develop her business concept
  • enthusiastic but weak
In other words, the language that accompanied the description of female entrepreneurs was peppered with negative assessments of attributes that were seemingly the same in both genders.  These biased views had a direct impact on how capital was invested, with female owners in this case receiving less than 18% of the available funds.

These two examples show how our societal biases are reflected in the language we use.  The good news about this is that although language can propagate bias, it can also help us to uncover it and flush it out.  By recording assessments, we are able to uncover these biases and right the wrong they do.

The first step to building more meritocratic systems is uncovering the bias within them – and words are extremely helpful in doing so.