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Mind Your Language: Are Workplace Behaviours Really Gendered?

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Mind Your Language: Are Workplace Behaviours Really Gendered?

In days gone by, the blur of placards, marches and emblazoned sashes would sing out as the unequivocal earmark of the feminist agenda. While there’s still a place for marches and taking to the streets, the strides towards equality for women in the workplace at every level have loudly taken up residence in a newer, faster, bigger theatre: online. #IWD2016 trended worldwide, and in the lead up to March 8th, VMA GROUP was preparing for the third and fourth events in our ‘Balancing the board’ programme: two seminars on the topic of “Limiting Behaviours: The key factors that affect women’s success in the workplace”.

In anticipation of the events, I read new stats and articles every day written by, and about, women in leadership, and the experiences they encountered on the way up the ladder. New blogs, new conferences, new hashtags, new infographics. The throng of empowered voices was inescapable, deafening and euphoric. Like many junior females stepping out of the wings of our careers for the first time, there’s a huge sense of responsibility to pick up the mantel. As such, the prospect of being at these seminars with senior level comms professionals while they identified and discussed ‘limiting’ behaviours to avoid in the workplace had me feeling excited and incredibly privileged.

Broadly speaking, the evenings filled me with hope. Imbalanced stats aside, seeing so many successful, empowered women talking confidently about the course of their trajectories ignited a sense of ambition and confidence in me that it was possible to reach the upper echelons of the working world without being compromised by my gender.

There was, however, one jarring theme that arose on several occasions on both evenings. Several women boldly told of how they’d managed to achieve certain work goals and command respect and attention by “ladding it up” a bit (as one attendee light-heartedly called it) – in effect, acting more “mannish” or “male”. While this received some furrowed brows, the response was largely in encouragement and support. It took me by surprise that this was the attitude, let alone that it was being discussed as a method for success rather than a problematic approach.

Why should I have to be any less ‘female’, and in doing so, be any less myself, in order to achieve at that level? Men aren’t advised to be any less ‘male’ in order to. I do not accept that this is just ‘the way it is’ and should therefore be liked or lumped by naïve juniors like myself. There must be more than that.

As this thread of conversation went on, ‘female’ traits were juxtaposed with ‘male’ ones in terms of superiority for success. I wanted to reject this notion out of hand. So I instead began to question how these attributes had come to be labelled with a gender in the first place, as in truth that seemed just as problematic as the prejudices they sought to challenge. I did not dispute that some behaviours are to be avoided, I took umbrage with how the troublesome ones were being labelled as ‘female’, and also questioned whether all the “ladd[ish]” behavioural examples given were necessarily that superior, or in reality just an attempt to superficially gain the approval of their workplace audiences.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to the behaviours that are genuinely limiting or otherwise, are they actually intrinsically linked to a gender? Or have we got so used to the characteristics of those in power, and the fact that those positions are largely held by men, that we have adopted the perception of synonymy that has in turn developed into a gendered stereotype? For example, predominantly speaking, is assertiveness in the workplace an intrinsically male quality, or generally that of someone who feels confident and unfettered to achieve and ultimately climb the ranks? Likewise, is it an inherently female feature to use frequent apologetic language and pre-empt criticism before putting an idea forward, or is it indicative of a historically oppressed sub-group member? Plenty of women in leadership speak with unapologetic assertiveness, and it is not because they are acting less ‘female’. It is because they are shunning the notion that prejudicial patterns of the past will act as blueprints for the future.

EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall recently echoed this sentiment at a panel session held by Wacl and Grazia at Fortnum & Mason during Advertising Week Europe. She put it forward that to be successful in business "you need to be comfortable with yourself to be confident. Of course in different situations you have to have different behaviours. You sometimes have to be a lot more assertive in meetings, but that’s a change of tone, not character. If you defeminise, you are changing yourself. Work is hard enough for many people. If you change yourself to adapt to that, it’s even harder."

VMA GROUP runs a series of events focusing on topics of interest in communications, digital and marketing. Our full schedule can be found here