As someone who’s written about communication for decades, I’ve decided to say what it feels like day in, day out, to be at the wrong end of being a person in America. A female. This article offers my personal viewpoint of how our endemic gender communication biases affect me as a woman. I hope it will inspire a dialogue that leads to gender-equal communication.
I don’t want this article to be a ‘scold’; there’s plenty of blame to go around given 1. our cultural norm that assumes a male preference; 2. women have been historically quiet when at the wrong end of gender communication bias (fear of reprisal, exhaustion and impotence from decades of being disparaged). But I deeply long for authentic and respectful styles of speech.
I suspect most men don’t understand what we women have to adjust to even in ordinary daily activities, from small seemingly-insignificant slights to those that cut to the bone; I suspect most men don’t realize how the endemic male bias methodically picks away at our souls. Sitting with a man recently, another man entered the room:
Man: Hi guys.
SD: Why not say ‘Hi gals?’
Man, pointing to my friend: Because he’s a man.
SD: What am I, chopped liver?
Women being referred to with a male term seems to be acceptable, to have crept into the culture as ‘generic’. But to me, given conversations like the above, it’s not. I’d like to think men would be willing to make some alternate choices and refer to me as a woman, with the strength, power, and respect that deserves. And it’s more than just the use of inept terms; it’s the attitude, the inbuilt assumptions that I’m less-than.
In this article I’ll share a few examples of how I’m too-often spoken to and how it makes me feel. Some of you may not understand or identify with what I’m saying (and men, since most of you have no history of being a woman, this might seem funny or slight), and some of you may judge me. But just maybe a few things I say will open a door to awareness so a dialogue can begin and start a conversation so we can heal this thing and come together as equals.
At an event recently, a man walked up to introduce himself. Here was our conversation:
BILL: Oh Hi! You’re the girl with two names!
SDM: Yes, I’m the woman with two names.
BILL: Aw, come on!!! Gimme a break! Get off it, will ya? Woman? Girl? What’s the difference!
SDM: Seriously? Surely by now you’ve been educated by women in your life as to the proper way to refer to an adult female.
BILL: I’ve been educated!!! Believe me! A lot! I know what I’m supposed to do! Very well!
SDM: So what’s stopping you from doing it?
Bill went quiet. We stood quietly looking at each other. He then said, in a very soft voice:
BILL: You’re right. It’s an old habit, and I’m embarrassed I spoke without thinking. I mean no disrespect. I do realize you’re an adult. I’ll work harder at it. Thanks for reminding me.
Why did he have to fight so hard to be wrong? Why was it easier to try to diminish me rather than apologize?
Let me begin with the very easiest question and annoyance: Why do some men still not know the difference between a child and an adult? It’s a no-brainer: There are two categories of people: child people and adult people. Children are boys and girls. Adults are men and women. Simple. It’s a respect thing. I suspect most men over 25 wouldn’t be happy constantly, daily, being referred to as boys.
WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Just curious: how can it seem right to use the same vocabulary for an adult woman as you do a 7-year-old female child? Being called a ‘lady’ is not ok either. Just last night, in 2022, I was told by a man “Lady, girl, woman, what’s the difference? I mean no harm by it. Why don’t you just get over it?” He doesn’t realize being referred to as a child devalues my power as a fully fledged adult. Don’t use alternative terms for me! I’m a grown-ass woman!
Do we women really have to fight for the right to be referred to as adults? It’s not a small thing: it sets the tone of the underlying thinking. And yet it has persisted for eons. In line for a movie once in 1980, I heard one man tell another: “When a woman hears the word ‘girl’ she doesn’t hear the rest of the sentence.’ 42 years ago, yet the problem remains. And as a woman facing so many other slights, when you refer to me as a child, my rights, my intelligence, my sexuality, my power is diminished.
Another problem frequently ignored is the cultural acceptance of conforming to a male bias – male being seen as ‘neutral’. As per my story above, I’m curious: how did ‘guys’ become the ‘gender neutral’ term? Why didn’t the term ‘gals’ become the norm? Sounds funny right? Why? Why not use Folks (more inclusive) as the gender neutral term?
Every time – every time – I am amongst women and someone calls us ‘guys’, I look around to see where the men are and wonder why I’m being excluded. What about ‘all men are created equal’? or ‘manpower’ and ‘mankind’? that are accepted as gender neutral, but the term ‘feminism’ (is defined as ‘equality between the sexes’) remains a term to be avoided because it’s ‘about women’?
And how did wearing pants become gender neutral? Generally, men don’t have an option to wear skirts – i.e. if conforming company attire for, say, McDonalds or the USPO, would be that everyone wore skirts? See what I mean? The assumption that ‘male’ equals gender neutral stops us from creatively discovering something new that’s both/and.
What about pronouns in books. Why are they almost always male? Do men realize what it’s like to read only masculine pronouns in books, newspapers, articles? Every time I pick up something to read – every time – I have to adjust. Dammit! I’m not a HE, or isn’t this book for me?
In my own books I alternate pronouns between odd and even chapters. A reader once wrote me to ask why all the pronouns in the entire book were female. “Such a good book otherwise,” he wrote. “Very annoying.” He was so annoyed by half the chapters with ‘she’ that he didn’t even notice that the other half were ‘he’. And yes, we refer to doctors and other professionals as ‘he’ although law schools, medical schools, etc. enroll 51% women.
This presumption that male is preferred overlooks women of every profession. It’s been proven in books, scientific research, for decades that women managers provide better results; women directors, artists, consultants, negotiators, bring an emotional honesty and innovation that doesn’t exist with men. And the patients of women doctors get healthy more quickly with fewer relapses. Why is this still a thing?
What is it that makes someone with a penis automatically better, smarter, more trustworthy, more creative or worth more money? Don’t even get me started on why having a vagina means we don’t like getting paid for our work, or look forward to unwanted sexual advances.
TO SAY OR NOT TO SAY
From my earliest memory – certainly in the decades I’ve been an adult – I’ve had to find ways to manage the disrespect, the condescension, the belittlement, I often feel from men when in conversation, especially when I share feelings. Recently a man ended a partnership with me when I told him I was annoyed and felt disrespected because he canceled four meetings (FOUR!) within an hour of the start time! I doubt that would have occurred had I been male.
Should I shut my mouth and stay silent (the route most women take given it’s such a frequent occurrence), express my annoyance, or turn off my feelings so the disrespect doesn’t get to me? Do I say something in the hopes that it will make a difference – that the dolt speaking to me might not do it to the next woman – and risk being put down? My self-talk sounds like this: “Idiot. Does he realize he just insulted me? Is he mean? or just stupid? Is he worthy of my energy to share my feelings and maybe teach him something or if I do, will he recognize what he’s done? or be a jerk and put me down?” Until now, I’ve walked away and ended our connection.
It’s a sad commentary that the baseline, endemic assumption is that women will bend to a man. And if she doesn’t like it and says something about it, she gets shunned, made fun of, tattled on, put down, beaten, berated, excluded, called a nasty name; men prefer to defend their actions rather than think they might have harmed someone, or be wrong.
But I’m done with making excuses for men. If someone hurts my feelings or offends me, I now say something. Silence has been our enemy. I am silent no more. I now speak my truth directly, without blame: the good ones say ‘Sorry’. The rest, I don’t need.
I think the tide may be shifting. Women are speaking up now and many men are listening. But the male bias is deeply, deeply built in to our culture, relationships, child care (How many men know their kids’ shoe size? Their kid’s upcoming school trips?), our work lives.
Here’s an exemplary story: While hiking in Bend, OR recently I came upon a family who had stopped to look at the view. On the right stood a woman, two teenage daughters, and a dog. About 15 feet away was the man. The woman stopped me and asked if I’d take a picture of the family. Sure. At which point this conversation ensued:
MAN turning to his family members: Hey, why don’t you all come over here?
SDM at the point in my life when I say what I want: You’re entire family is over there. Why don’t you just move yourself over to them? Why should they all move over to you?
DAUGHTER: Right on, sister.
MAN in utter confusion, seriously: What??
WIFE: I’ll explain it to you later, Joe. Ma’am, he has a hard time when he’s not the center of everything. And after all these years we’ve been married, and all the conversations with the women in his life, I have no idea why he still thinks he is. Men are just a different species.
They’ve had that conversation many times, and yet there it is still. The expectation, beyond all logic, that an entire family – and dog! – would move 15 feet because the person ‘over there’ was male.
How sad that so much creativity is lost, so many relationships damaged, so many works of art and innovations and services that never get created; so much possibility of learning and growing and caring and supporting each other through this maze of life because of our culturally ingrained assent that all things male are the standardized choice.
WHAT DOES RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATION SOUND LIKE?
For those of you who may not be aware of some of the things that might make the women in your life feel less-than, I will share some of the comments and questions I regularly hear. And note: I lived in Europe for six years where men spoke to me with egalitarian, respectful, authentic communication.
I was shocked on return at the level of condescension, the use of words of mistrust, skepticism and degradation that’s built into – and accepted! – our daily communication. I had lived with it so long that it had become part of my life experience. Only with six years away did my ‘new’ ears hear the disrespect. When I told my seatmate on the plane coming back that I had started up a tech company and an international non-profit he replied, “Yeah? You and who else?”
Even now, as a well-known, well-respected author of several bestsellers, inventor, entrepreneur, etc. my intelligence and ability are regularly questioned. Here are a smattering of phrases I hear regularly:
Do you really think you can do that? or Don’t you think you need help with that? or Are you sure you don’t need help? * Did you do it yourself? * That dress really makes you look sexy.* Just scroll down and hit ‘enter’ – it’s right there in front of you.* That’s pretty good – did you come up with that yourself? * Calling you a girl is a complement – chill out! * You took it the wrong way; get over it.* Here you go, young lady (Spoken by much younger man: my response is always “I’m neither.” I’m not young, and who the hell wants to be a lady?) * We didn’t forget you – we just thought you might not be interested in that sort of thing and we knew John could catch you up. You don’t mind, right? * Oh! You know about boats/math/science/computers… etc.! Huh! * Seriously? You can do that? – and what is your background? * You write books? Do you write them on your own, or do you have a ghost writer? * Where are your footnotes…what do you mean ‘original thinking’ – that’s impossible.* It’s all in your head. * You won’t go out with me??? Dyke. * You look a bit tired; do you need a break? * I hope you don’t mind that I used your term – I’m sure you don’t mind if there’s no attribution. * I know you think your way works, but let’s use the conventional format, shall we?
Women live with this daily. There’s this all pervasive, underlying, endemic assumption that we’re not creative or smart, not to be believed, trusted, or acknowledged, that we don’t know/can’t know, or that we won’t care if we’re left out, ignored, made small, or paid less. Why is it still a thing to pay women less? Why?
There hasn’t been a day in my life that I haven’t had at least one conversation that would never have occurred if I were a man. The language is different, the tone might be snide or pejorative, the assumptions patronizing even if the men mean well.
One man actually went out of his way recently to send me an email re an article I wrote on some of my original thinking: “Well, you’re just full of yourself, now, aren’t you!” My answer, of course, was ‘Yup.’ I doubt he would have sent that note to a man. He might have thought it, but wouldn’t have sent it. Does possessing a vagina mean that I don’t mind being insulted?
For too long our tribal norms have normalized condescension and sexuality: assumptions of inequality has been built into our culture. I believe men aren’t speaking this way purposefully, and the majority of men trust and respect women. But it’s time to change the language to reflect this. Let’s start with how conversations should sound and what we should aspire to:
- A collaborative communication – what I call a WE Space – between both Communication Partners (CPs) that has no leader, no follower. Both/And. No right or wrong, better or worse, smarter or dumber. Both and neither partner are in control. Everyone is equal. No put-downs or slights. Every exchange includes the feelings of the Other. A Recognition and openness to emerging ideas, feelings, problems without defense should something need resolving. No fault – just willingness to get it right for both CPs. Everyone enters the conversation with no goal other than to be collaborative and serve the other. And if something specific needs to emerge from the conversation, it must be agreed to by all parties at the beginning of the conversation. [NOTE: I teach this in corporations. It’s astounding how many men, even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, aren’t aware of their communication biases. And yes, it’s changing. But it remains a struggle.]
- Listening biases that assume a positive outcome, not an assumed conflict that starts with an ear readied to be ‘right’ if challenged by a woman. Men: women very often feel conversations include words and attitudes that make us wrong, weak, or silly, giving men permission to step in with disparaging demeanor, words, insults, and be ‘right’. It’s inherent in language and attitude choices and often not obvious to you. It’s all been normalized – but we women always, always notice.
- The belief that everyone is equal, that everyone’s ideas are valid, that everyone’s work is meaningful, that people are generally honest.
- The time between exchanges to notice a shift in voice, tone, tempo, volume that might connote a problem that creates a pulling away from engagement.
- The ability to check yourself if thoughts of intelligence, sexuality, competition arise.
- The willingness to ask if there’s a problem, or apologize when necessary.
- The willingness to not get your individual needs met if the conversation takes a different turn than expected.
I believe that behaviors are merely a translation of our beliefs. Since our language is one form of behaving, I’d like to pose a few questions to men to help begin considering change:
- What would you need to believe differently to be willing to examine your own unconscious attitudes in case you might be harboring some imbalances? How will you know (given your normalized and habituated communication) there’s a problem?
- In case your internal exploration shows no problems, would you be willing to request feedback from 3 women as per your communication patterns?
- What would collaborative, respectful conversations sound like? And what, specifically, might you need to change to achieve this?
Play with listening filters. Using these 5 words – Why Did You Do That – ‘listen’ to them in your head as if they were said by 1. A close female – wife, partner; 2. A female colleague; 3. Your mother; 4. A male colleague; 5. Your father. What are the differences in tone, expectation, assumed meaning, feeling? If you notice any, write them down. [NOTE: in my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? I have many fun exercises to highlight listening biases and assumptions.]
Thinking about entering conversations with women:
- What are your expectations re your own takeaways going in to the call/conversation? Expectations such as being collaborative, or getting your own objectives met, etc. Write them down.
- Listen for shifts in a colleague’s speech patterns. When a shift occurs following something you’ve said, stop the conversation and ask your Communication Partner if something happened, and if there was something you inadvertently said that needs to be examined.
- Go into a Starbucks, or other coffee shop, and overhear a few conversations that you can hear well enough to mentally code. Notice the flow, the words, the tone; notice when shifts occur in topics. See if you can tell if there were shifts that might have been initiated by male-dominated biases built in. Listen to conversations between women only, men only. And mixed. What are the differences between types of words used, underlying and unspoken messages, between the three.
Here are some easy phrases to use:
That dress is pretty. It suits you.
I am so excited to learn you know how to do that! I’d love to learn how at some point.
Your ideas are so profound! Well done! I’d love to hear more. Given some of my ideas are more traditional, I’d like to ask some questions so I can add to what I already know.
Oh my! I hadn’t meant to speak in a way that you find patronizing. I apologize. Would you mind telling me exactly what it was you heard and tell me how I can say it differently so I can learn to not do it again? Thanks.
Seems you’re not able to get X up on your computer. There should be a ‘submit’ button near the bottom somewhere. It might be hidden on your screen. It’s up there somewhere I think.
My bias is that we communicate kindly and respectfully, that women get treated like capable, creative humans, that men are merely the other gender – not better or worse, smarter or dumber. I believe we’re all here to serve each other, life being what it is. Let’s not use our gender to separate us. And men, if you’re not sure what to say, here’s the rule: they only barometer for acceptable is integrity.