‘Feisty’ is one.
‘Bossy’ gets a lot of press.
And don’t get me started on ‘working mother’. How many men have you heard described as ‘working fathers’, let alone ‘dadpreneurs’?
Subtly sexist words about women and girls.
Not the obvious, awful insulting words (which are depressingly many and varied), but the ones that fly under the radar, and contribute to a culture that undervalues women.
I started writing them down a little while ago. I was musing on how men don’t get complimented on being ‘bubbly’ or ‘chatty’, and that these are behaviours that are, well, unthreatening to men: is that why they are compliments?
And doesn’t the act of writing for all the world to see sound less brave and revolutionary when you slap a label on it like ‘mummy blog’?
I got to a list of seventeen before asking my friends at the Feminist Mothers Aotearoa Facebook group for their un/favourite examples.
Last I looked, the thread had 425 comments and replies. I’ve added most of the suggestions to this list, though I’ve omitted a great number of the direct insults that we can all recognise as sexist (even if some people think they are acceptable for use.)
The list has gone from my seventeen to 122 words or phrases used against women.
Is this trivial? Should we spend our time on something more important? Here’s Dotty Winters’ take on the question:
Women are either equal to men, or they aren’t and language that goes unchallenged is one of the many ways we allow inequality to lurk around in the dusty corners of offices. There are huge and shocking implications for gender inequality worldwide. People die, are refused healthcare, or suffer attack as a result of gender. Faced with these atrocities it can feel petty to gently challenge the unequal use of the word ‘abrasive’ but the same system perpetuates both behaviours and it’s all based on the same flawed logic.
This is what I think: the world would be a better place if everyone stopped talking about and to women like this, especially if it’s because they’re identifying and eradicating their own, sometimes unconscious, sexism.
Remember this pyramid? The words in today’s post are sprinkled liberally through all three of the bottom layers, and even higher.
And of course it’s not an either/or dichotomy. We can care about the language we use and still fight human rights abuses in Myanmar and child marriage around the world. Indeed, changing how we talk to and about women will help us dismantle rape culture and raise kids who are world-changers.
So here is my list so far of dozens of sneakily sexist words to get us all thinking. Please leave a comment with your response, and any ideas you have about making the world a better place for everyone.
You’ll nod in agreement with some of these examples, and be puzzled at the inclusion of others. Everything here is listed because a real woman has heard it in use and understood it to be used in a sexist way. Feel free to exclaim that you didn’t know a particular word could be sexist, but please don’t dismiss people’s experiences as you do so. I will be moderating the comments to ensure we have a friendly discussion. No sexist comments will be published.
A special thank you to my very favourite satirical Twitter account, @manwhohasitall, some of whose gems have been turned into graphics on Facebook, reproduced below. The best is on Twitter, though, so do go and follow her. (I’m going on record with my hunch that she’s a she.)
Double-standards: These words punish women for behaviour that is acceptable from men
These words are used against women who have ideas and opinions and are confident in expressing them
We can probably all agree that these are words people use to show criticism and disapproval. What’s less obvious is that they are sexist, for two key reasons:
- these words are used disproportionately often against women
- the behaviour they describe often goes unremarked in men.
Here’s some more context for this, again from Dotty Winters:
A 2014 study for Fortune.com by Kieran Snyder examined 248 reviews from 180 people, (105 men and 75 women). The reviews came from 28 different companies, all in the tech sector, and included a range of organisational sizes.
One word appeared 17 times in reviews of women, and never in any of the reviews of men: ‘abrasive’. Other words were disproportionately applied to women, including bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational. Aggressive did appear in two reviews of men, in the context of them being urged to be more aggressive. Reviews of women only ever used aggressive as a criticism. The gender of the person writing the review didn’t affect the results of the study.
When men and women display the same behaviours in, say, a workplace, men are much more likely to be called ‘assertive’ ‘confident’, ‘powerful’ or ‘a strong leader’, while women get this list.
How can we change things for the better?
- If you find yourself describing a woman with one of these words, ask yourself what you would say if a man behaved this way. Would you comment at all? How would you describe him? Think carefully before letting any of these words out of your mouth. Here’s a tough question to think hard about: is the problem with the woman or with you?
- If you hear someone else describe a woman this way, what could you say? Please leave suggestions in the comments below! One possible script, to attempt to open up conversation: ‘Hm, it’s interesting you call her ‘shrill’. I don’t hear men with strong opinions called that. Have you ever thought about that?’
- If someone describes you with these words, especially in a performance appraisal setting, calling out sexism can be a big deal.
Responding to professional (or any other) criticism is a complex dance of emotional intelligence, and each work setting has its own challenges. If you want to call someone on sexist feedback, you could try something like:
‘I’m interested that I’m being called ‘bossy’ and ‘opinionated.’ I wonder if you could help me sift through that feedback, and see what I can take from it. One concern I have is that studies show that women and men displaying the same professional behaviour get seen differently, with women being called ‘bossy’ and men ‘powerful’, for instance. How much of this feedback is because I’m a woman, do you think?’
Again, please leave your suggestions and wisdom in the comments below.
Anyone who is involved in giving performance appraisals, mentoring people or otherwise evaluating and describing human beings as a job, might want to stick this advice to journalists from Gloria Steinem on their walls (feel free to copy it and pop it in someone’s in-tray):
The most workable definition of equality for journalists is reversibility. Don’t mention her young children unless you would also mention his, or describe her clothes unless you would describe his, or say she’s shrill or attractive unless the same adjectives would be applied to a man. Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs. Don’t say she’s just out of graduate school but he’s a rising star. Don’t say she has no professional training but he worked his way up. Don’t ask her if she’s running as a women’s candidate unless you ask him if he’s running as a men’s candidate. A good test of whether or not you as a reporter are taking sexism seriously is whether you would cite race, class, ethnicity, or religion in the same context.
[Read more in the The Women’s Media Center’s Media Guide to Gender Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians, by Rachel Joy Larris and Rosalie Maggio, available as a PDF.]
These words are used against women, when similar behaviour by men goes unremarked
Dramatic (as in Drama Queen).
-nazi, eg, Feminazi
Militant, eg, militant feminist.
-zilla, eg, Bridezilla
Blonde (how many men are said to have ‘blonde moments’?)
Have you ever heard a man called a gossip? I’ve certainly heard men engage in the activity, but not criticised for it very often. And as I read somewhere recently, if you think men don’t start ‘drama’, you need to pick up a history book.
Unkindness is unkindness, whatever the gender of the person practising it. If we need to speak about poor behaviour, let’s choose words that are not unfairly gendered.
- Before you comment on a woman’s tone or attitude, consider whether you need to at all. Seriously.
- If you do need to, choose a word that could equally describe a man’s behaviour. Say that someone is being unkind, rude, selfish or inconsiderate. English has plenty of options.
- Ask yourself if you speak critically about men as often as you do about women.
The Women’s Media Center has a several-page glossary of sexist terms with context and, critically, gender-neutral synonyms. Check it out whenever you think of a sexist word that you are in the habit of using and would like to change. Here’s their entry for ‘strident’, for example:
strident used primarily to describe women (especially feminists) indiscriminately and discriminatingly, “strident” (as well as “shrill”) has become a stereotype that means little more than “She makes me sick!” Alternatives include: harsh, jarring, raucous, dissonant, discordant, unharmonious, clashing, sharp.
[Read more in the The Women’s Media Center’s Media Guide to Gender Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians, by Rachel Joy Larris and Rosalie Maggio, available as a PDF.]
Patronising words, with no male equivalent
Career woman (have you heard of ‘career men’? Or as they’re usually known, ‘men’?)
Little old lady (I like to imagine that woman driving an ambulance in the World War II, or doing a family’s laundry without electricity.)
WAHM (Work-at-home mum): As Katie Macintyre wrote, “When I work from home I’m a “working from home Mum”. When my husband works from home he “has his own business” with no mention of the fact that he’s a Dad.”
Fierce. This one is newish, and seems to be used mostly by women applying it to themselves, and each other, without pejorative or patronising intention, but I reckon it can go either way. See for instance how flowery the illustrations of Shakespeare’s use of the word are in this Pinterest search:
And though she be but little she is fierce.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III, ii
Spirited. I can’t think that I’ve heard it of a man, except for groups and teams: ‘a spirited defence’.
(I’m not your) mother:
Stop using these words, eh? Or be careful to use words like ‘spirited’ and ‘feisty’ of men and boys too, if you enjoy using them in a positive way.
‘Working mother’ is a tricky one. It’s probably more useful for society to see both fathers and mothers as people who work both at home and in other jobs, so rather than abolish ‘working mother’, it might be nice to popularise seeing men as ‘working fathers’.
Andie Fox at Blue Milk writes some of my favourite stuff on how women’s care work is largely unacknowledged and unpaid. She’s an economist and a brilliant writer. Check out her stuff for more nuance:
On the economics of divorce: What Scott Morrison fails to understand about how divorce affects women
On in/equality in parenting (This one hit me like a train.)
These words insult women based on their sexuality and sexual expression
Asking for it.
The town bike.
And yes, about a hundred more, including some examples of things men had called real women I know that made me feel ill.
This one’s easy. Don’t comment on other people’s sexuality or sexual expression if you’re not, you know, participating in it.
A good test to use, if you really do need to talk about sexual behaviour – perhaps in the abstract, with a teenager – is, again, only to use language that fits people of any gender.
Try to take all the judgment and emotion out of what you’re talking about. It might be a challenge, and it’ll be good for everyone.
These sexist words about physical appearance aren’t used for men
Mutton dressed as lamb.
(That dress is) flattering.
Let herself go.
Plus-size (have you ever heard of a plus-size model who was male?)
How other people choose to dress is none of anyone else’s damn business.
My mother was, of course, correct in her advice: if you can’t think of anything nice to say, just say nothing at all.
For more on this, I really love Andie Fox’s practice:
A little while ago while sitting on the beach I realised how good I am at picking faults in women’s bodies, my own included of course but that’s not really so surprising because I know my own body very well and I’ve been living in a misogynist world, oh all my life. What I found while sitting on the beach was that I could size up a woman in 10 seconds flat. So well trained was my eye that I could spot her imperfections in an instant. Worst of all I could do it completely without thinking. Hi, could you tell me which way to the cafe? Hey, thick ankles by the way.
I was repulsed by myself. So I tried something new. When I was next at the beach I made it my mission to find something I liked about every female body that my eyes came to rest upon. Once I got going it wasn’t even that difficult. And the most surprising thing for me? Not how differently I started to view other women (for that had been the whole point of the exercise) but how differently I started to view myself. My participation in the hatred of women’s bodies had been every bit a form of self-hatred.
These words praise women for behaviour that is unthreatening to the patriarchy
I think people often use these words (probably unconsciously) to praise women for being unthreatening.
There’s nothing wrong with being bubbly, but if it’s a word used to underestimate and undervalue women’s other qualities, maybe it’s one to relegate.
These words dismiss women as pawns of their hormones and physicality
Menstrual or pre-menstrual.
These basically mean ‘disagreeing while female’.
Maternal (when not about one’s own children).
Baby brain (As someone said on the Fem Mamas page: ‘Ffs give exhaustion its real name’).
These are problematic for a few reasons.
- Men can and ought to feel emotions, just as much as women, right? Colours are for everyone. Feelings are for everyone.
- Emotions are good things!
- It is patronising, presumptuous and insulting to dismiss a woman’s argument or behaviour by blaming it on her biology. If you don’t agree with her, say so. If you think she’s being unreasonable, say so. Don’t pretend you know anything about her personal biochemistry.
- It’s also tone policing, and that really has to stop.
- Some men and some women love small children. Some don’t. Let’s try to take people on their own terms without making assumptions about how they feel about kids.
- Women experience a lot of pressure in the realm of child-bearing. Lay off! A person can enjoy holding one baby without being ‘clucky’ or hearing her ‘clock tick’. As Sarah writes, ‘Get out of my uterus!’
- Choose gender neutral words if you must refer to someone’s irritability or unreasonableness. But first: is she being unreasonable, or is she just disagreeing with you?
- Don’t let these comments slide when you hear them.If you’re feeling sarky:
‘Exactly which hormone do you think makes her disagree with you?’
‘I might be interested in my endocrinologist’s opinion of my hormone levels, but not yours.’For a more opening-the-conversation callout:
‘When you call me ‘hormonal’, it feels icky. I don’t want you talking about my body like that.’
‘You know emotions are good things, right? Let’s talk sensibly about the issue, but let’s not pretend we aren’t human beings who feel things while we do it.’
‘Please don’t dismiss my argument in such a sexist, rude way.’What else could we say? Pop a comment below with your suggestions, please!
[A brief interruption…]
I still have lots of sexist words and phrase to cover here!
Just before we get to them, I wanted to mention that I’ve just started a Patreon account. If you’ve found this article thoughtful and useful, and would like to support me to write more stuff like this, head on over. You can leave your suggestions, vote for what the next article will be, and make my writing possible. Thanks!
These sexist words minimise women’s achievements
That’s good, for a girl.
Like a girl (run like a girl, throw like a girl).
Swap these words for gender neutral ones:
Blogger. Business owner. Entrepreneur. Good.
Words that define women by their relationship to men and children
She wears the pants.
Words about women’s health that should be renamed
These brilliant suggestions came from a member of the Facebook group.
I bet there are plenty more that women would like to rename or reclaim, since pretty much everyone doing the anatomical, physiological and medical naming over the years has been male.
Failure to progress.
What would make your list? Please leave a comment below.
These words limit girls and boys and perpetuate sexism.
How we speak to and about kids is a larger topic, of course. Here are just a few words to be careful about:
Princess (as a default term of address to a girl you don’t know well.)
Tomboy (because a girl who likes to climb is no less a girl.)
Girly (‘a girly girl’) (because boys can like pink and sparkles, and not all girls do.)
Heart-breaker (and any other words that sexualise little kids, suggesting they are into romance or sex when they’re only four years old.)
Pretty (I’m just suggesting that if you use this, it’s not the first thing you say, or the thing you say most often to a child. Another opinion here, though.)
And let’s put bossy in here again, too.
Think hard about why you use any of these, and whether your use of them dismantles or reinforces a sexist world. Consider ditching them and looking for replacements you’ll enjoy using to build up the kids you love.
For dozens of phrases for feminist parenting, check out my post here.
These words pit women against one another
When two men or groups of men are debating, we call it debating, or discussion. If they yell, we call it robust, or heated. Or Parliament.
When two groups of women are debating, let’s call it debating, too.
These words damn with faint praise
There’s nothing wrong with these words in themselves, but research on the references people write for graduates (see below) has shown that they are more often used for women than for men, who are more likely to get words of more ringing endorsement like ‘excellent’, ‘accomplished’ or ‘successful’.
These words come from this fantastic tip-sheet from the University of Arizona Commission on the Status of Women, available as a PDF here:
I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired after all of that. Shall we chat further in the comments?
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