Gendered language and impostor syndrome

I have evidence that I am a victim of gendered language. One of my teaching evaluations from a national course once said, “If you look up the definition of the word ‘perky’ in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Jennifer Hunt.” One of my old performance reviews says, “Dr. Hunt is aggressive.” Even my 12th grade English teacher complained to my parents that I was “pushy and bossy.”

Now imagine someone else just like me, but a man—a chair, a pathologist, a speaker. Maybe he has an agenda he wants to accomplish, he gives energetic talks, and he makes his points with confidence. Would he ever be called “aggressive, perky, pushy, and bossy?” A sure sign of gendered language is when the same word would be awkward sounding and weird when used for the opposite gender. Most of the time, these words are pejorative and unflattering.

Here is a story from my recent book on impostor syndrome, where gendered language is in full bloom.

Shelly interviewed for a leadership role at another organization and she felt like the interview went really well. She had solid answers for every question. She had 8 years of experience in a similar role and felt like she was well prepared this new position. But, she didn’t move forward in the search process. After asking for feedback from the search firm, the search firm consultant told her, “Men and women are seen differently—that is just a fact. What might seem strong and decisive answers in a man can be interpreted as overbearing in a woman.” Shelly idly wondered if appearing less well qualified and less confident would have actually given her more of a chance at the job than being confident and knowledgeable.

Gendered language also lurks in job advertisements, and language impacts behavior. Even with very subtle shifts, women might not apply for a position if the ad contains male-biased gendered language. Since the research shows the distribution of an applicant pool is an important determinant of diversity in leadership, small shifts can have a real impact. Read these two ads and notice the gendered language:

Option A: Our ideal candidate will be a strong leader with experience in managing complex organizations and setting high expectations for results and outcomes.

Option B: Our ideal candidate will have excellent communication skills, will collaborate across different departments, and will work cooperatively to achieve meaningful results.

Gendered language and gender bias are also rampant in letters of recommendation. Letters written for men are longer, contain more stand-out adjectives and fewer doubt-raisers, include fewer personal details, and highlight potential much more than performance. In other words, men typically get stronger letters of recommendation than women—even with exactly the same credentials.

Finally, gendered language and bias have been noticed in the ways that men and women are introduced.  In a Mayo Clinic study, videotaped grand rounds lectures were reviewed. When a woman introduced a male speaker, she used his professional title nearly 100% of the time. When a man introduced a female speaker, he used her professional title just under half of the time. This might not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that titles, degrees, and explicit acknowledgments of expertise are important factors for credibility. Leaving off a person’s title can lead to their being taken less seriously.

Take a look at these two introductions:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to introduce Jennifer Hunt who will be speaking today on the molecular pathology of thyroid cancer. By way of background, she is the mother of 3 very active kids, she volunteers as a swim official, and even finds time to be a CrossFit coach on the side. I just don’t know how she balances all of this and still has such a career.”

Or …

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am so pleased to introduce to you Dr. Jennifer Hunt who will be speaking today on the molecular pathology of thyroid cancer. By way of background, she is double boarded in anatomic pathology and molecular pathology. She has published more than 150 papers and has spoken all over the world as an international expert on DNA testing in thyroid cancer.”

Who would you trust more with DNA testing on thyroid cancer—the first me or the second me? I call this the “fallacy of familiarity.” While it might sound friendly and social to use first names and to tell a few personal stories, it actually serves to invalidate the expertise and competence of women.

If a lightbulb went on for you about gendered language and how it is contributing to a culture of inequity, there are a few steps that you can take personally to fight this trend. First, watch your own language. Are you using titles the same way for men and women? Are you using gendered words in your own everyday speaking? Second, watch your own written language. If you are writing job ads or letters of recommendation, use a lens of gender equity to review them for content and words. And, lastly, find your own gentle and kind ways to help others to not fall into the trap of gendered language.

Jennifer Hunt is a pathologist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jennifer Hunt, MD. She is the author of Unlocking Your Authentic Self: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome, Enhancing Self-confidence, and Banishing Self-doubt.

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