Leah Holroyd questions why women are called ‘feisty’ in the workplace, and whether this is undermining women in business
First, a confession. I only ‘came out’ as a feminist a couple of years ago. Until then, I lumped feminism in with microwave ovens, dishwashers and Sky TV – things I didn’t really need, that I got on pretty well without. Growing up, I hadn’t been particularly aware of any sexism around me. My parents shared the housework fairly equally and my dad did the bulk of the cooking – which was lucky because my mum has been known to sneak tinned hotdog sausages and Branston pickle into dishes that need “bulking out a bit” and she has the doubtful honour of inventing the mackerel cobbler, a dish so grim that my brain has erased all memory of it. I don’t think that I was treated differently to my two brothers and I didn’t feel any pressure to conform to some traditional concept of ‘girliness’. Father Christmas brought me the blue Power Ranger action figure, not the pink or yellow one. These might sound like trivial examples. The point I’m trying to make is that as a child and even as a teenager, I didn’t feel that I was at a disadvantage because of my gender. I don’t remember noticing any obvious inequalities. I’m not saying they weren’t there, just that I didn’t pick up on them.
The epiphany came one day at work when I was copied in on an email chain about a new project. The gist of it was that a male colleague had met with a potential customer and sold them a product that didn’t exist yet, promising that the company would be able to deliver it within a few months. He had emailed the signed contract to our accounts department and mentioned in a casual, off-hand way that the production team would have to get cracking on it. A female colleague in the production team replied, requesting more details and asking several important questions. The team’s workload is mapped out months in advance, so there were obviously issues of capacity and potentially a need to hire freelancers. They’d need a detailed brief. They’d need to know the deadline for completing the work. And so on. Given that this extra work had suddenly been dumped on her desk with no advance warning and no apology, I thought her message was remarkably restrained. Her points were all perfectly reasonable.
The male colleague replied, telling her to “wake up and smell the coffee” – presumably the coffee that she and her team would be drinking at 2am as they sat at their computers desperately trying to get through the unscheduled work. He had somehow got it into his head that she was against the whole project, so he responded by insisting that the new product had been approved by the board and that the work would go ahead whether she liked it or not. A few days later, she and I went out for lunch and I told her how bewildered I was by the guy’s unprofessional handling of the whole situation. She used some pretty choice words to express her view of him, earning us a few raised eyebrows in Wagamama, and then told me that she’d been so angry she’d gone to talk to the chief exec about the incident.
His reaction? He called her “feisty”.
That word ‘feisty’ flicked a switch in my brain. It was one of those ‘oh’ moments, when you hear glass shattering in your head and realise that things will never be quite the same again.
When did you last hear someone use the word ‘feisty’ to describe a man? A patronising, diminishing word. A word designed to reduce a woman arguing her case to a kitten ineffectually swiping at a ball of wool with its unformed claws. It made me so angry, I felt sick (though thinking about it now, I should have capitalised on this nausea and tried to wangle a refund for my pad thai). I could picture them – the senior team at my company, who of course are all male – sitting around in the boardroom, rolling their eyes and grinning sardonically, talking about this woman and her funny little struggles.
Let’s just take a moment to picture it the other way around. How would the same incident have played out if roles of the male and female colleagues were reversed? This is just conjecture, obviously, but I’d guess that the word ‘feisty’ would not have slipped from anyone’s lips. I think if the guy in this hypothetical scenario had responded with the same arguments, he would have been supported by his boss and probably described as ‘assertive’.
I know I’m not the first person to spot this kind of thing. There are plenty of examples out there. ‘Bossy’ is another classic – women are bossy, men are simply bosses. Then there’s ‘trashy’, whether applied to outfits worn by women or books written by them. It’s funny, because I’m a linguist myself. I have a degree in modern languages and I’ve had the opportunity to study the fantastically interesting discipline of sociolinguistics. But honestly, up until the ‘feisty’ moment, I hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that we have a whole different vocabulary for talking about men and women.
And that’s a depressing thought, isn’t it? How can we achieve equality if inequality is so ingrained in our psyches that we alter the very language we use as a result? Presumably, as with bilingual people who sometimes flick between two languages within a single sentence, this is something happening at the subconscious level. I don’t believe my boss deliberately selected the word ‘feisty’ to produce a particular effect. I don’t suppose it even occurred to him that it might have caused offence. I don’t reckon he gave it a moment’s thought.
So what do we do about that? Do we retaliate? If we start calling men ‘feisty’ and ‘bossy’ and ‘trashy’, will they start to understand how those words make us feel? It comes down to some pretty fundamental questions about language and thought. Chicken or egg? Does the language we use influence the way that we see the world? Or does our worldview dictate our linguistic choices? It must be possible to retrain the brain to avoid specific words. Most people have mastered the art of not swearing in certain settings like job interviews (I’m getting there, but still can’t control myself if I stub my toe) and most of us are aware of what constitutes racist language. So the good news is that I think it’s doable. Like so many of these things, I think it’s largely about raising awareness, making sure that we acknowledge this kind of problem, that we talk about it, that we explain why it’s a big deal.
I’d be the first to admit that I’m late to the party here. I’m late to most parties. I still don’t have a microwave oven. Or Sky. Or a television, come to think of it. I guess I’m writing this because I want more people to have the kind of glass-shattering ‘oh’ moment that I had that day. I want more people to come to the party, however late they show up. I remain convinced that the world does not need dishwashers, but I now know with absolute certainty that the world does need feminism.
Image description: A white, masculine person in a business suit shakes hands with another white business person, while a feminine person with dark skin stands between them smiling.
Image credit: This image is shared by thetaxhaven under a Creative Commons license.