Words matter. And language can encode hidden biases and have negative consequences.
But without specialized training, it can be hard to explain what the problem is. Or convince people that the problem even exists.
In this post, I’m going to unpack the issues with saying guys, hussy, and executive presence. I’ll use the science of linguistic anthropology to help you understand the hidden issues and consequences. And you’ll learn both useful alternatives and how to explain to other people why they are needed.
A manager protested to his female report. “But ‘guys’ means everyone! You know I’m including you when I say ‘you guys’ to the whole team.”
Was he right? Is guys inclusive?
A single word can create a whole scenario in your head. This is what linguists call semantic framing.
We can do some easy semantic testing to see if guy and guys are universal when it comes to gender, or if they are gender-specific.
1. Min-young, who identifies as female, is in a restaurant and needs to use the bathroom. The first restroom door she walks by says “Guys” on it.
Does she decide this is the bathroom for her? Or does she keep walking down the hall and look for a door that says something like “Girls” or “Gals” or “Dolls”?
2. Min-young and Brad are sitting at a table outside. Brad points at two people sitting at a table in the distance and says, “Hey, Min-young, who is that guy over there?”
Does she think he’s referring to the person at the table who appears to be male? Or the person at the table who appears to be female?
3. Brad identifies as straight. Marc asks him, “So, since you moved to town, how many guys have you dated? I know it can be hard to meet people here.”
Does this sound like a usual question to ask a straight man?
Or does it sound like Marc thinks that Brad dates men?
This semantic testing tells us that the common semantic framing for guy and guys is male. Not gender-neutral. Not universal. But specifically male.
One of my principles of inclusive language is that it should accurately reflect reality. And the reality is that not everyone is male.
So use other ways to address groups, like “hey, team,” and “y’all” and “folks.”
Ok, I know you’re not saying “hussy” to your colleagues. (At least, I hope not!) But the story of hussy has all kinds of relevance to women at work.
In Middle English, hussy was a standard contraction for husewif, the older form of today’s housewife.
But by the 1650s, the word hussy had turned into a strongly derogatory word with negative sexual semantics. A hussy was now a woman who was “inappropriately” sexual, “stole” another woman’s man, had relations with “too many” men, etc.
These negative semantics for hussy remain to this day. The neutral meaning, where a hussy is simply partner to a husbonde (husband), is long gone.
This downward slide from neutral term for a woman to something more negative is actually quite common. Linguists call it pejoration.
A few examples of gendered word pairs where only the female half has undergone pejoration:
Lord – Lady
Master – Mistress
Governor – Governess
For all these examples, the female word has become limited to the domestic domain, sexualized in a negative way, or otherwise made smaller or more trivial.
For example, a man slamming on his brakes for a wayward pedestrian may yell, “hey, lady!” But he’s certainly not going to yell “hey, lord!”
And have you ever noticed there’s no equivalent male word for mistress?
This downward semantic change comes from the way words are used. Again and again, words for women become more negative, more domestic, more sexual, more trivial. Because this is how the culture views women.
Use neutral words in negative ways enough times, and the semantics start to change. Eventually, you have a word with a new meaning, referring to something different in the world. Hussy changes from “housewife” to “slut.”
These cultural perspectives on the roles and behavior of women continue to this day. And they are right in our workplaces.
Women belong in domestic domains? Well, look at all the “office housework” women “naturally” end up doing. And the emotional labor – how many women reading this have been asked to smile by a man?
The constant sexualization of women is the backdrop to problems ranging from inappropriately sexualized compliments to sexual harassment, where the vast majority of targets are women.
And the trivialization of women and their work contributes to problems in perceiving women as authoritative leaders in public domains like workspaces and politics.
Women are not “naturally” more domestic or more emotional. It is not “natural” to constantly sexualize them, or to over-scrutinize their sexual activity. And it is deeply unfair to trivialize their contributions and keep them from leadership tracks.
So be on the lookout for words or attitudes that suggest that “women’s work” naturally involves an unfair amount of thankless and draining labor. You can use them as a springboard for conversations about equitable distribution of labor.
“I don’t think she’s cut out for the VP role. She just doesn’t have executive presence,” said the recruiter.
I’ve heard it said that “ambiguity is the door that bias walks through.”
The concept of executive presence is ambiguous. And it is often used to shut out well-qualified candidates who are “different” in some way. Like people who speak English as a second language. Are soft-spoken or collaboration-oriented. Or maybe just female.
People say about executive presence, “I know it when I see it.” Or, “it’s just a feeling you get from someone.”
And even if you find a breakdown of executive presence into more granular components, those components are filled with ambiguity. For example:
As a linguistic anthropologist, I analyze hidden meanings. Sometimes this involves figuring out what cultural identity a word is pointing to.
And in the US, the cultural identity being referenced for executive is white man.
Executive presence points to the behavior of white male executives. Many women don’t speak according to the cultural norms for white men. (And there is usually serious backlash if they do.) So they don’t read as “executive.” And then they get shut out.
Who runs companies in the US? It is overwhelmingly white men.
For example, almost 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. And there are more CEOs named John or David in the S&P 1500 than there are female CEOs.
With this kind of data as input for our brains, no wonder many of us end up with mental models where “acting like an executive” and “acting like a white man in an executive role” have almost complete overlap.
I once interviewed a woman I’ll call Jessica. She ran a satellite office in a big city, managing $20 million of annual business.
A few months earlier, Jessica had gone up for a promotion. And although she felt the interviews had gone well, she hadn’t gotten the job.
So she asked for feedback so she could learn how to improve. Make herself a better candidate for the next time a role like that came up.
And, after a long delay, HR came back with almost nothing for her. Certainly nothing actionable. Or specific. But they did say that she didn’t seem to have “executive presence” yet.
Jessica can read between the lines. So she recognized that this ambiguous and unhelpful feedback meant that her company had no interest in investing in her. In cultivating her professional development. In moving her to the next level.
She decided to leave and start her own firm. She’s been an executive for years now – and her firm is doing great.
Using white men as the implied standard to judge all candidates for executive roles shuts out well-qualified people. And using executive presence as the justification? It’s often just a socially acceptable way to express bias.
Instead, committees should have clear, granular, pre-defined criteria that are applied equally to all candidates.
Words like guys give us insight into subtle ways people who aren’t male get excluded.
Words like hussy give us insight into pejoration of women and their work. And they highlight the problematic ways women are seen through domestic and sexualized lenses.
Words like executive presence give us insight into gatekeeping and the ways ambiguity can serve as a protective cover for bias.
So keep your eyes open for exclusion, sexualization, trivialization, and gatekeeping. And use concepts like semantic framing, pejoration, and ambiguity to explain to other people the hidden meanings and hidden bias of problematic words.