Did you ever wonder why animal analogies factor in so much for women?
- A relationship-based film is a chick-flick.
- Women we don’t like rhyme with witches.
- Female body parts are like fluffy kittens (apparently), not exactly pussycats, but you know…
- Like cats, angry women have claws that come out.
- Women are catty.
- Women in relationships with younger men are cougars.
- Deem a woman unattractive, and she’s a cow, or a dog.
Women, men, and those who identify beyond the binary, all make these references. Casually. Flippantly. With malice. Without malice. At work. At home. At a restaurant. And we don’t think twice about what we said (or heard). We don’t think about the child next to us who is learning that this is the language we use to describe women.
Animal analogies are easy ways to invalidate someone. They are demeaning. There is no need to take someone seriously or give them a chance once we have decided that they are *itches or just being catty. But what if they are? a colleague asked me. Well, then consider why we don’t apply these terms to men. Or why we allow men a much broader range of acceptable behaviors. “Oh, he can be gruff. But trust me, he’s a really great guy.”
Language is powerful. It both reflects and informs our perceptions, and the way we make decisions. It goes beyond animal comparisons and has real life implications. By now, most of us have seen the Throw Like a Girl video.
There is no justifiable reason for the dearth of women in leadership or for the wage gap. Women have out earned men in college degrees in the United States and every OECD (developed) country for decades now. Catalyst has busted the myth that women aren’t as ambitious as men. And yes, women do apply for jobs they are not 100% qualified for; it’s just that we don’t hire them unless they meet more of the qualifications than a male candidate applying for the same role. Of course, there is the very current and ongoing issue of women’s unacknowledged accomplishments as the movie Hidden Figures so poignantly showed us.
The reasons for the rampant, gender-based double standards are numerous, complex, culturally and socially grounded, easy and hard to pinpoint at the same time. And they have a lot to do with the narrow tightrope of acceptable behaviors and looks that we apply to women. Our language reflects it. Act like a lady. Don’t cry like a nine-ear-old girl. Have some *alls (those are good). Don’t be a *ussy (that’s bad).
Pay attention to what you say and hear for 48 hours. What did you learn?
Sangita Kasturi leads organizations to address and mitigate issues of bias in people and business processes. She delivers strategies that leverage diversity, build equity, and create inclusive cultures and leaders. She is a speaker, facilitator, collaborator, and consultant who has worked globally and has been featured in Working Mother, Diversity MBA, Disrupt HR, GE Brilliance Rising and more.