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Recognizing the coded language of demonizing strong women

November 12, 2019

What demonizing strong women sounds like

I’ve had multiple conversations over the last month with men who were defaulting to coded misogyny when describing female leadership. Here’s specific examples of what this language sounds like in practice to help you recognize when you hear it or may be using it. This language is pervasive and entrenched in many aspects of our lives, so I’m hoping by pointing it out we can recognize when it is being used and take time to educate ourselves to be better allies.

In the first conversation, we were discussing a woman who’s in the government. He felt “she should step aside because she’s too old and we must make room for young blood.” We’re finally starting to see shifts in leadership to make room for more voices in government and this absolutely needs to happen. However, it became apparent that he wasn’t holding her to the same leadership standards as he was other men. Either he didn’t understand the woman’s contributions or was diminishing them. Her experience in the role was a stronger dis-qualifier to him than the value she brings through the massive collaboration she has accomplished.

In the next conversation, a person was describing the woman he works with on a government board. He didn’t feel she should continue to have her seat at the table because “she’s difficult to work with”. What he was conveying was she had a different view of the world than him and he didn’t want to accommodate her different perspectives because it was outside his comfort zone. It wasn’t as easy to him as the other decision making tables he was accustomed to being at, which had less diversity at the table.

Yesterday, our local paper described a female state legislative candidate’s qualifications as a “semi-retired ski instructor” when she is the past financial controller of a Fortune 500 company & retired naval officer — for the second time in a month. The first time it happened could be regarded as a mistake, which the paper was alerted to. Second time was intentional.

The leadership double standard

To recognize when you are using coded language to describe strong women, ask yourself “Would I use those same descriptors for a male leader?” Would you be saying he’s too old or would you be saying he has depth of experience in that arena? Would you be describing a man as difficult to work with or would you appreciate that he has a different perspectives coming from another industry?

Resources to unlearn coded language

As a xennial, I expect business & political leaders to value having diverse perspectives at the decision making table and to actively be including more perspectives there that have been excluded in the past. This requires examining our biases and default behaviors as well as allotting more time in decision making for robust critical thinking from a variety of people.

Others have written more extensive resources on this topic, so I highly recommend these articles on coded language.

Better Male Allies for the Tech Industry

The sneaky language today’s politicians use to get away with racism and sexism

Everyday Misogyny: 122 Subtly Sexist Words about Women (and what to do about them)

This article was originally published on Medium.

Katie M. Wilson
Katie Wilson is a communications strategist/producer and the founder of Prosperity CoLab.

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