Billionaire Tory Burch says the way women talk is partly to blame for gender inequality — here’s why experts say that’s wrong

Tory burch
Tory Burch. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, billionaire fashion designer Tory Burch points out in a recent LinkedIn post — and she believes women are partly to blame.

“Yes, there are some systematic impediments to success for women such as access to capital, but perhaps the greatest obstacles to equality in the workplace and launching our own businesses are some of the cultural norms that we ourselves perpetuate,” Burch writes.

The fashion mogul uses an anecdote from 2004 as an example: During an interview with The New York Times, she was irked when the reporter used the word “ambitious.” She says she had bought into the stigma that women shouldn’t be ambitious and believed the word had negative connotations when used to refer to women until a friend advised her never to shy away from “ambitious.”

“Be mindful of your words and actions,” Burch advises. “Ask yourself: Did you really need to modify that sentence with ‘just,’ ‘I think maybe,’ or ‘kind of’?”

This isn’t the first time women have been instructed to stop using supposedly destructive speech patterns to wield more power in the workplace, and linguists and workplace experts are worried about the discussion surrounding this supposed speech epidemic.

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We listen much more closely to what women say. Francisco Osorio/Flickr

In an article on LinkedIn by Ellen Petry Leanse, the former Apple and Google employee also advised women to stop saying the word “just” so often, because it supposedly hurts their credibility in the workplace.

But the problem, linguists say, isn’t that women use this kind of language more than men — in fact, Robin Lakoff, widely regarded as the founder of language and gender studies, previously told Business Insider there’s no empirical proof that this is even the case.

She said the issue is that we listen much more closely to what women say and are consequently far more critical, which has devastating effects.

Lakoff believes one explanation for why people listen more closely, and differently, to women is that, like minorities, gay people, or anyone else who isn’t a middle-to-upper-class straight white man, they are seen as “the other.”

“What women do is more apt to be seen as not the right thing or having some kind of an obnoxious meaning because that’s how we see women. There’s always something the matter,” she said.

But Lakoff and other linguists argue that there’s nothing wrong with using words like “really,” “I mean,” “sorry,” or “just” in the right context.

Lakoff calls these ways of speaking “empathy markers” or “empathic devices” because they’re all ways of showing that you relate to the other person and want to make them feel better. “If there weren’t humans around who knew how to be empathic, we would have probably all killed each other off years ago,” Lakoff said.

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Saying ‘just’ shows that you relate to the other person, linguists say. Natalia Budantseva-Strelka Institute/flickr

The assumption that empathetic language is harmful and leads to gender inequality is “back-to-front logic,” Debbie Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Oxford University and author of “The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?,” wrote on her blog last year.

“Telling women their speech habits are bad and wrong is not going to make them more confident speakers: it’s more likely to reduce them to silence,” Cameron wrote. “Continually repeating that women’s speech lacks authority just gives people yet another reason to dismiss whatever they say as unworthy of serious attention.”

When you know everything you say will lead to someone jumping down your throat, it’s easy to think that maybe you better not do it at all, Lakoff said.

“‘Women should …’ is a very bad way to talk because every time you hear that you think, ‘Do I do that?’ ‘Maybe there’s something the matter with me.’ ‘What must people think of me’ and so on,” Lakoff explained. “It makes you very unconfident and not willing to trust yourself when you express yourself, which is about as bad a way to be as there could be.”

Burch writes that she looks forward to the days when ambition in a woman doesn’t have a negative connotation, and, because of this, her goal at the Tory Burch Foundation is to provide female entrepreneurs access to affordable loans and networking opportunities. These tools seem like more effective ways to give women a leg up in the working world.

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