The saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” takes on new meaning in the workplace. The words we choose to describe our peers, particularly those used to describe male and female colleagues, can have a lasting effect on careers. For instance, by now you’ve likely heard about the detriments of labeling young girls who are assertive as “bossy.” No better explanation of the detriment exists than from Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign #banbossy:
“When it comes to girls and ambition, the pattern is clear: girls are discouraged from leading. When a little boy asserts himself, he is called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’–a precursor to words like ‘aggressive,’ ‘angry,’ and ‘too ambitious’ that plague strong female leaders.”
But, in a recent study, researchers looked beyond the word bossy to examine other ways in which language hurts women in the workplace. According to their article published in the Harvard Business Review, the words we use to describe peers, colleagues and direct reports can impact career trajectories because “… people are often asked to recommend, select and endorse certain employees. This happens through word-of-mouth referrals, letters of recommendation, performance appraisals and informal conversations about colleagues.”
The authors point out that both words and metrics used to “evaluate” women and men are different. To prove this point, they conducted a study analyzing 624 recommendation letters for applicants applying to jobs at Rice University. What they uncovered was that letters for women contained more instances of “doubt raisers” than for men.
“Doubt raisers are short phrases that serve to (most often unintentionally) plant or raise doubts in the minds of employers,” write the study authors. “And we examined three main types: negativity, faint praise and hedges.”
Negativity was the most obvious doubt raiser because it directly highlights a weakness of an applicant–disguised as something that can be addressed and overcome, such as “It’s true she doesn’t have much previous workplace experience.” Faint praise is best described as a back-handed compliment (e.g., she only needs minimal supervision) and hedging refers to uncertainty, such as stating “She might not be the best, but I think she will be good.”
To examine the effects of these doubt raisers, the study authors tweaked letters of recommendation by either removing or including a doubt raiser before submitting them to evaluators. They found that a letter with any one of the three doubt raisers significantly increased evaluator negativity.
Upon further examination of recommendation letters, the authors also found that those written for women were more likely to contain “communal” words, such as caring, friendly and sensitive. And while the use of communal language and niceness isn’t always an issue, especially if jobs require such qualities (think of the traditionally stereotyped female jobs: nurses, teachers, social workers), the authors rightfully point out, “… the ‘nice’ candidate often doesn’t get hired.”
The authors suggest that we should all take a closer look at the language we use to see if we fall into the same trap of labeling peers based on gender constructs rather than their actual abilities.
“Identify patterns that you may not have noticed previously, and hold yourself accountable, so that you, too, do not intentionally shortchange women and/or overprescribe their nice qualities,” they write. “You should be vigilant not only about your own use, but also about how other use words differently. When you see such biases, don’t be afraid to call others out and tell them about the unintentional gatekeeping that their word choices may have.”