Shannon Kelley

Shannon Kelley
Santa Barbara, California, USA
June 11
Shannon Kelley and her mother Barbara Kelley are both journalists, and have just written a book called "Undecided". Together. (...Right??) This blog is a taste of what you'll find in "Undecided", a book about choice overload, analysis paralysis, grass is greener syndrome, longing for the road not traveled, and how the success of the women’s movement has left women stumped in the face of limitless options — and how to get over it. The book comes out on May 3: if you like what you're reading here, get the book here: And subscribe to our blog here:


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OCTOBER 13, 2011 11:16AM

What’s In A Word?

Rate: 8 Flag

More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through –  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries it’s own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.

Tagged: Catalyst, Charlotta Kratz, gender stereotypes, Hillary Clinton, Irene H. Lang, jessica valenti, john boehner, Laura Ellingson, Leslie Bennetts, Phyllis Korkki, The Devil Wears Prada, Undecided

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While I agree that these things have been true, and are still often true, the tide is changing for women and for men. There are huge disadvantages for women who want to be professionals who are not overly ambitious on their path, just as there are for men. And if you look at what the tv is showing us, women who aren't aggressive, comptetitive, ambitious and controlling are not the star of the show, or the apple of the eye. Maybe that mostly still goes for white women, but those are the only characters who seem to get spotlight or interesting writing or central roles anymore. And, they have to stay skinny and crazy on top of that!
Just has a conversation with my husband about this word. Rated.
There's no shortage of double standards, but I agree with Oryoki that things are starting to change. I know more guys who are staying home with their kids while their wives work. One of them is my brother. And little by little, I see more women rising to leadership positions. Change is coming more slowly than we might like, but it's coming.
Good piece Shanon. Thank you for it.

In the case of Hillary Clinton it was the women who led her to the wolves from day one. Not the men. As I would never vote for just a "gender" in the first place, I honestly didn't foresee, it didn't dawn on me, that her run would be turned into nothing more than an acceptable excuse for perpetual misogyny. I witnessed the lowest common denominator, and a hatred so brutal... I hope to never see such filth as that ever again.

Words... In many cases, specifically in the workplace, it is the women having an archaic, erroneous idea that the only way to succeed is by stepping on the other females around them. This petty faction of self hating women who spend their days creating false rumors, slagging character any chance they get... and for what? And why? Jealously? Inappropriate jealousies are a large part of what holds women back in every field and all walks of life. This woman on woman backstabbing is far worse than a few words. Once women start to support one another instead of hinder, things will change. Until then, they will not.

And again, in regards to Hillary Clinton, what she went through during the primary (and has endured her whole life) is what a lot of intelligent, savvy, determined and focused women must face to climb the ladder. However, I doubt anyone in America has experienced it to the degree HRC did. And she didn't and hasn't let it stop her, no matter how painful it is/was and how betrayed she is/was... She is an amazing person on a vast array of fronts and her strength is awe inspiring. It's unfortunate we lost the chance to have her as our president. No "words" can express the loss I feel for our country. No "words" can express the loss I feel for our gender.

There are no words.
good piece. I think it's words and its also the value placed on them. I prize process, compassion, empathy, assertiveness and action. I don't find aggression attractive or ultimately productive. I like determination, passion, perseverance, dedication... It depends on the end game of what you want to accomplish. What seems defined as success is something I find shallow and pathetic. The people I work with, male and female, feel the same. We are perhaps on the outside edge, but it's where we want to be.
Phyllis Korkki is the editor who assigned me the column that became my new book, so I'm a fan of hers for personal reasons...but I also plan to blog about this column of hers.

I agree with Mimetalker about the qualities I prize, (which are all, sadly, pretty subjective -- for some people, determination is read as annoyingly persistent), but there is a cultural overlay here beyond gender and I've walked into that electric fence -- especially here at OS -- a few times, with very painful results.

In America, (where I have lived for 22 years, from Canada), everyone is supposed to be Equal, with the God-given right to be President...and showing pride in yourself marks you as arrogant, entitled, snotty, people suddenly decide (?) you've judged them (how?) and found yourself better than them. Being proud of your accomplishments apparently means pretending you don't have any. (Or only showing them in your college essay or resume.)

Yet the only way to achieve many successes in a zero-sum, f--k-you, elbow-in-the-eye capitalist society -- that would be the U.S. is to compete non-stop at full force, practically from birth.


It's a no-win. In a place like NYC, where I compete for work with the toughest and smartest people I have ever met, (some also lacking all form of ethics), being a polite little wallflower insures life as roadkill. It's one of the reasons I enjoy living here, because we all know it and we know the local rules.

The people (esp. the women) who have torn me to shreds for my self-confidence and assertion are almost always from somewhere that docility, obedience, conformity and self-abnegation are the accepted female norm. That's their choice, but there's often tremendous peer pressure -- as you well note -- from other threatened/annoyed females to make it ALL women's choice.

Hello, feminism?