Saturday 17 March 2018

Women in authority: Just who are you calling Bossy?

Dublin trainee teacher and kick-boxer Néidín Coulahan - she says she is taught to be aware of gender stereotypes in the classroom and not to buy into them.
Dublin trainee teacher and kick-boxer Néidín Coulahan - she says she is taught to be aware of gender stereotypes in the classroom and not to buy into them.
Fired: Natalie Nougayrede
Sacked: Jill Abramson
Michelle O'Donnell Keating believes language is important
Brendan Strong with Jennifer Wallace and their daughters Rebecca and Emily

After Jill Abramson was fired from her high-profile job, she was described as 'brusque' and 'mercurial'.

Why don't we have the language to discuss women in authority, and what impact does this have on young girls?

Be tough and be called bitchy or be soft and be called weak. It's a tough choice but in the bear pit of corporate life it's a double bind women still appear to be caught up in.

Just when we thought the glass ceiling might have been shattered, the cautionary tale of Jill Abramson reminds us that double standards still apply when it comes to women being the boss.

Abramson was fired from the most high-profile job in American journalism – she was until the week before last the executive editor of The New York Times. Anonymous sources say that she was "brusque", "pushy" "mercurial". One source complained that she had "this disapproving look on her face all the time".

On the same day that Abramson was removed, the editor of French newspaper Le Monde, Natalie Nougayerede was also sacked. She too was criticised by anonymous sources for her "authoritarian" behaviour and her "Putin-like" brusque nature.

The sackings have unleashed a firestorm of comment and questions about whether a man displaying similar behaviour would be viewed the same way.

Speaking about women in the film industry, Barbra Streisand said: "A man is commanding, a woman is demanding. A man is forceful; a woman is pushy. A man is uncompromising; a woman is a ball-breaker. A man is a perfectionist; a woman's a pain in the ass".

She made these comments in 1992 but, particularly in light of the Abramson affair, it seems that things – especially the language used – haven't changed much.

The luminaries behind the Ban Bossy campaign in the US are arguing that while it's subtle, the language we use is vitally important in how we equip young women to go out and achieve their goals.

The campaign spearheaded by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and backed by Victoria Beckham and Beyoncé, is seeking to have the word "bossy" banned on the grounds that it stops girls becoming leaders.

While banning things is not usually the answer and the campaign has received an overwhelmingly negative reaction, it is time to look more closely at what we are saying to girls in a wider sense.

It is time to ask questions about the language we use and the way we use it to see if it is in some way discouraging girls from pushing themselves forward into leadership positions and crippling their confidence.

When we wonder why so few women end up as the CEOs of big companies or at the helm of universities or at the top of big media companies, perhaps the answer lies in how we spoke to girls when they were children.

Businesswoman Michelle O'Donnell Keating believes that language is one of the most important and dangerous tools we have. She says that when certain words such as "ambitious", "driven" and "confident" are used to describe a man, they are considered to be good qualities. But when used to describe a woman, they're not perceived as being as positive.

O'Donnell Keating who runs Women for Election, a consultancy firm that trains women for leadership roles, says that it's time for a debate about language.

"We tell girls not to be over-confident so much so that they start to believe that 'I had better not lead – I would be better to take a step back in terms of where I'm seen'.

"Many of the women we meet are very comfortable saying I'm happy to be somebody's number two. That comes after years of people telling them not to be pushy – don't be over confident," she says.

And Michelle says we apply these double standards not just to language but to positive traits more usually associated with women.

"We frown on their caring nature – we want tough decisions. We see collaboration as indecisiveness. Society does seem to value male traits over those of women."

Dr Paul Ryan, a lecturer in Sociology at NUI Maynooth, believes that while the Ban Bossy campaign is somewhat misguided, there's no doubting the importance of language and how we employ it.

"All of this has started a conversation – it's really good to talk about this in terms of women's public involvement and leadership," he says.

He points out when women adopt male qualities of leadership they're penalised and when they show emotion they're also criticised.

The language we use is only a symptom of a much larger problem which is our attitude to girls and women in the modern world, according to Brendan Strong from Kilcullen, Co Kildare, who is the father of two girls Emily (6) and Rebecca (4).

Brendan says that in his experience, boys get more leeway to experiment with being boisterous and bossy, as society tends to say 'they're just being boys'.

However, he feels the same standard still doesn't apply to girls and it's seen as unacceptable behaviour for them to act like this. "We still have these traditions that there's a certain place for women and girls and for men and boys. With the girls I tell them they can do anything they want and be whoever they want. You don't want to turn into a pushy parent but you just want them to go out there and try different things," says Brendan.

While he thinks the Ban Bossy campaign can lead to people focusing on one word and becoming overly politically correct, he hopes that it will inspire him to be more conscious of the words and the language he uses in his parenting.


Tips for building confidence in girls

Be mindful of how you talk to her

According to the Ban Bossy website, many girls start sentences with apologies. Some cover their mouths while speaking, using phrases like 'kind of' to weaken their convictions. Notice how you communicate and be conscious of your own habits.

Encourage assertiveness

Teach your daughter to express her needs to adults and stand her ground with her peers. If another child is being mean, encourage her to say "I don't like the way you're talking to me.

Teach her to get involved

Encourage girls to participate in extra-curricular activities especially sporting ones, so they gain leadership skills.

Encourage a healthy body image

Praise girls for what they do, NOT how they look. Direct your praise to effort and improvement rather than focusing on looks.

Teach her to respect her feelings

A girl's ability to recognise and respect her feelings and speak up about them is a vital ingredient to developing healthy personal authority and confidence.

Prepare her for sexism

If you notice her watching TV shows where girls stay in the background while boys save the day, point it out and talk to her about how different things are in the real world and point out positive females role models.

Irish Independent

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