Emotional, feisty, nasty. It’s unfortunately all too common for us to hear these words used to describe women—and only women—while other words, like driven or committed, are used to describe men. What gives? Sexism. Sexism, intentional or not, gives people a whole new vocabulary.
This isn’t anecdotal, either. The use of adjective-sexism to undermine women is backed by research. Take this study featured in the Harvard Business Review: Researchers looked at professional feedback received by 4,000 men and women in the military in order to see how prominent adjective-sexism really is. There were no differences in the way both genders were described objectively in evaluations (like efficiency, organization, analytical nature) but several differences existed on subjective counts (behavior, likability, approachability). Here, women were largely described in terms with negative connotations, and men in terms with neutral ones; gender bias, thus, is largely intertwined with our everyday language.
These language biases have measurable impacts in the workplace. They can affect how employees perceive themselves, how their performance in the workplace is perceived, and how they and their peers perceive their capability of being promoted. Language can determine who leads projects, gets promotions, is awarded raises, or even who is fired.
Why are sexist adjectives still used to describe women in the workplace?
Why indeed. Often, it’s because people aren’t actively aware of their gender biases or the impacts of their language on their coworkers and direct reports. They might hold men and women to different standards in leadership—unfairly expecting women to be more “caring” and “maternal” and then criticizing them when they don’t meet those sexist standards.
This toxic mentality can be a culture problem, which is why it’s important for managers and colleagues to be mindful of the terms they use when giving feedback about others. If women are described in condescending and sexist terms, they are put at significant disadvantages when compared to their male counterparts. Constructive criticism should be welcome in a professional setting, but using gender-neutral terms to do so is incredibly valuable to creating a work environment that promotes equality and inclusivity.
A good step toward change is focusing on making easy swaps in terms used to describe everyone, especially in formal company documents like annual reviews. This helps to eliminate the gendered way women are evaluated and, in the process, makes feedback more beneficial and effective.
10 adjectives to swap out right now for non-sexist terms
The problem: It makes a woman who likes things done her way and has strong visions for her work seem immature and inconsiderate.
2. A nag
The problem: It makes it sound like strong-willed women who are attentive to detail in a way are constantly imposing or dragging on others—when being detail-oriented is a good trait.
The problem: This word describes women as if they are moody and prone to lashing out at others, especially other women. Men who behave the same way are rarely described with this word!
The problem: “Ditzy” implies women who may be forgetful and lighthearted are also incompetent.
The problem: “Sassy” used to diminish a woman who makes strong sarcastic or witty remarks.
The problem: This is a condescending way of describing an outspoken woman determined to achieve her goals.
The problem: “Bubbly” might be a fun term outside the office, but at work, the word portrays outgoing women as silly and giggly. Again, men with similar personality traits are simply not described this way.
8. High maintenance
The problem: This word makes women with clear expectations and professional standards seem irrational.
Alternative: Perfectionist or detail-oriented
The problem: Whew. This one describes a woman affected by high-pressure situations as if she is unreasonable and overreacts in a way that men wouldn’t.
Alternative: Fearful or upset
The problem: This term, especially in the workplace, makes what could be a well-reasoned defense or assessment by a woman sound unhinged and worthy of being discounted.