Leadership language

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“Congratulations to those men…” jabbed actor Issa Rae. She’d just finished the announcing the nominees for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. It only took one word but her point was made. Loud and clear.

 The role of language in gender relations is well-trodden in academic circles. But, in the real world, does it actually matter?

A couple of years ago I was at the pub with colleagues when – out of nowhere – my Head of Department unleashed a semi-serious character assassination. He didn’t like how chummy I behaved around the MD. The thing he said in his wine-fug that stung above all was when he called me “manipulative”.

That word rung in my ears for days afterwards.

Cut to a few months later. We’d got to know each other better, and I felt comfortable enough to ask him about it. We both joined at around the same time, but while he was butting heads with said MD, I wasn’t having a problem building a rapport.

Things between them were so bad that he was worrying about the security of his job. He sheepishly admitted that he didn’t really see me that way – in retrospect he’d lashed out because he was jealous. He was truly remorseful, and the reasons behind his reaction made sense. We’re still great friends now.

What’s your point then, Georgia? Well, to echo Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder…

Would ‘manipulative’ have been the word he chose if I was a man?

I don’t think it would.

There are specific terms reserved for women who are confident or aggressive in the workplace. Take the word ‘ball-buster’:

  • a tough disciplinarian or taskmaster
  • a dominating or threatening woman who destroys a man’s self-confidence

That definition discredits not only this mythical man-eating monster, but also the men who apparently fall to pieces when a female of the species is tough on them.

The Fawcett Society’s Sex & Power 2020 report confirms that, just like movie directors, women are still in the minority at the top of their respective fields in our society’s most influential sectors:

  • 30% of Cabinet Ministers
  • 17% of Supreme Court judges
  • 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs
  • 21% national newspaper editors

And sadly the same thing is true in advertising & design. According to Creative Equals, only 16% of Creative Directors are women. I’m proud to say that one of those few works with us at Union Direct.

Are we living in Mad Men days of secretarial arse-slapping and constant belittlement? Absolutely not. But I bet most, if not all, of those female MPs, judges and CEOs have been called hurtful labels on their trajectory to the top. How many of them have been called a ‘ball buster’?

Let me be clear – this is not a rant aimed solely at the male of the species. Women are complicit.

Nowadays we’re told that to ‘lean in’ – that confidence is key. But female behaviour is still subjected to different standards – including by ourselves. My own experience taught me that, as a woman, being confident with my boss meant I was as a game-player.

Whether it’s on a tense conference call or in salary negotiations, we girls often struggle to make ourselves heard – or feel judged when we’re assertive. We’re stuck between a ‘nice’ rock and a ‘manipulative’ hard place.

As brand & marketing experts we spend large portions of our days thinking carefully about the right words to use to communicate our message. But when it comes to our interactions with each other, why don’t the same rules apply?

If reading this has got you all riled up – or more likely just got you thinking, where can you go next?

There are a bunch of initiatives out there aimed at supporting female leadership in the creative industries, check them out:

Image result for gather scotland

Bloom Scotland – bloomscotland.com

Creative Equals – creativeequals.org

Kerning the Gap – kerningthegap.com

WACL – wacl.info


Want to join me in helping women unlock their full potential? Reach out. Send me an email – georgia.bridgwood@union.co.uk.

Last year Union was part of the Gather Scotland – gatherscotland.com event and we’re looking at future plans – so watch this space. Men – that goes for you too!