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Posts Tagged ‘Leslie Bennetts’

More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through —  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries its own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.

 

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Forget the B-word; if you want to hit a woman where it hurts, one word’s sure to do it, according to longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in this month’s Elle magazine, and that word is Ambitious.

Here’s Bennetts’ lede:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Hillary Clinton? Oprah? Condoleezza Rice? Um, no.

Soon after Catherine Zeta-Jones married Michael Douglas, I met her at their baronial apartment overlooking Central Park West. Waving a hand bedecked with a diamond as big as a grape, Zeta-Jones gestured toward the mantel, where her husband’s Academy Awards were displayed, and confided that she wasn’t satisfied with his reflected glory. ‘I want my Oscar up there too,’ she said, her dark eyes glittering with determination.

Why so taboo? It seems a logical assumption that a film actress should want an Oscar… but, Bennetts writes, “in all my years interviewing movie stars, nobody had ever admitted to coveting one.”

And even after women have scored mega-success, they minimize what it took to get it. Bennetts’ piece outlines the ways some of the most successful, prominent, and groundbreaking contemporary women have refused to own their ambition. Hillary Clinton described herself as “stunned” when President Obama asked her to be his secretary of state, to the point that “‘I kept suggesting other people: ‘Well, how about this person! How about that person!'” Oprah (as Bennetts reminds us: “the richest self-made woman in America and the country’s first black billionaire”) said she doesn’t think of herself as a businessperson. From Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman president of Harvard–to Michigan state governor Jennifer Granholm to former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, women seem more likely to attribute their success to luck or to describe it as something that “just happened” than to own it. Can it really be that women still haven’t learned to take a compliment? Or is it that to be seen as ambitious is no compliment at all, but (much like being dubbed ‘opinionated‘) risky, dangerous, unladylike?

Um, probably. According to Celia Lake, a pollster and political strategist Bennetts quotes in her piece:

When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches… The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.

And, while we might be inclined to say but things are changing! Girls today are surely more confident than that! Bennetts offers up evidence to the contrary, quoting a recent Harvard grad, who recalled her experience in high school, and why she opted out of running for class president.

I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. And the truth is, they probably wouldn’t have. There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much.’

I’d venture to say aspiring class presidents of the male variety do not face such “he has too much” anti-campaigns.

But why do we buy into it? One reason, according to longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt, is socialization.

[Feldt's] interest in power was sparked by research she did on women in politics. ‘Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve scarcely moved the dial at all,’ Feldt says. ‘The problem was not that the doors were not open. The problem was that women were not walking through those doors–and that just blew me away.’

One reason women hang back is what Feldt calls a lack of ‘intentionality.’ It seems that from their earliest days, boys know they’re supposed to have a specific interest; they can decide to be and do whatever they want,’ she says. ‘Girls are now told they can be and do anything, but they’re much less likely to be taught that they should have a life plan that’s intentional. Girls are socialized to be reactive; boys are socialized to be the askers, girls the askees.'”

We’ve written about that before, and we think there’s something to it: boys are brought up knowing their job is to slay the dragons, to go, to see, to conquer. While the girls… well, we were the pretty princesses waiting to be rescued. And if that’s indeed the case, and if it’s further the case that we fear being seen as ambitious, for (perhaps) the more grown-up version of I’m afraid people won’t like me–well, is it any wonder so many of us are so undecided? We’re given the message that we can do anything, but we’re not socialized to be the doers. And even if we decide what we want and that we will do what it takes to get it, there’s no guidebook that shows us how. Even the women who’ve gone before, rather than saying, well, I did this, and I did that, and these things were really important, are more likely to sweep away the footprints they left, with a self-deprecating “it was really just a fluke.”

Perhaps the proper first step would be to wear our Scarlet As with pride. I’ll go first: I’m Shannon, and I’m Ambitious!

Feels kinda good.


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