With the world left in shock by the US presidential election result, many are questioning how a man with such prejudice could be elected to power. Although the reasons are clearly manifold, former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani’s comment last month that Donald Trump would be a better president “than a woman” suggests that, sadly, it could be less complicated than we think. Throughout the presidential election campaign, Hillary Clinton’s suitability for office was consistently undermined by focusing not on her policies but on her gender and the qualities that are believed to reflect this. While many of the attacks against Hillary were overtly sexist, prejudice against her also manifested itself in the implicit stereotypes and linguistic nuances that exist in everyday speech and written word.
President-elect Trump’s speech in the third and final presidential debate, in which he referred to Hillary as a “nasty woman”, contained many more subtly sexist rhetorical intricacies. Drawing on the age-old trope of the hysterical woman, he described Hillary as “extremely upset, extremely angry” in response to the Supreme Court ruling that maintained individuals’ rights to possess firearms in the United States, thus undermining her suitability for office with a hyperbole of female emotion.
This side of the pond, John Humphrys used a similar weapon in an attack on Angela Eagle’s emotional stability on the Today programme. He asked her whether voters wanted a prime minister who “weeps in the face” of difficult issues. With many of the world’s male leaders, including Obama and Putin, having been moved to tears without their suitability for leadership questioned, this appears to be a question that would only be asked of a woman. These insinuations of emotional instability levelled against female politicians reflect a double standard in our society: women, when emotional, are irrational and unpredictable while men are measured and compassionate.
Women, it seems, are measured by a different yardstick to men, and a closer look at the words we use to describe the two sexes reveals a gaping gender divide in vocabulary. Some words take on a different meaning according to the sex of their subject. Ambitious, for example, was an insult when directed towards Liz Truss, who was called "an ambitious, middle-ranking cabinet minister whose main ambition is to go further up the greasy pole" by former Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer. Other words are reserved exclusively for the female sex. Feisty, for example, is regularly used in reference to female politicians; firecracker was Piers Morgan’s description of choice for Theresa May in an interview last month. When was the last time you heard either these words ascribed to a man? Try bossy or shrill for that matter.
As research by Fortune reveals, this gender bias in language does not just affect female politicians but all women in positions of power. Fortune compared the employee reviews of women and men in leadership positions and found numerous words that were present only in the reviews of female employees: abrasive, strident and aggressive described women who took the lead, with emotional and irrational used if they expressed an objection. Clearly, pejoratives such as these are directed at women within our workspaces as well as in our governments and are symptomatic of a wider culture that is uncomfortable with women in positions of power.
This cultural unease is reflected by figures that reveal the number of women in senior management roles. Research from US-based audit and tax firm Grant Thornton revealed that the UK sits below the global average for the proportion of senior management roles held by women: the figure fell to just 21 per cent in 2016. Some have argued that this imbalance arises from a lack of ambition on women’s part. However, Fortune’s research on the gendered language of the workplace points towards an alternate explanation – widespread negative attitudes towards women in management roles are preventing others from assuming positions of power.
It must be said that not everyone that uses these words or phrases is a raving misogynist. Negative perceptions of female leaders are culturally compounded and so this bias is often unconscious. This, however, is no excuse, and if we want our world to become a better and fairer place, we must repair the damage done by societal sexism. We each have a responsibility to check our language for prejudices against women, and to call out those who don’t. As Trump’s political success demonstrates we still have a long way to go.
Roisin Briody is an account executive at Camargue.