I just cannot.
A couple of weeks ago, Business Insider published a post by Ellen Petry Leanse, a former Apple and Google employee. The gist of it was that people (read: women) should stop saying the word “just” so often because it hurts their credibility in the workplace.
So far, the post has more than 3 million views.
Unfortunately, research doesn’t bear out her conclusion, and the advice might hurt women more than it helps them.
The problem here isn’t the women who hedge their words; it’s the people who believe policing them is somehow a service.
As a professional woman, I can’t think of a worse use of my workday than having to check myself every time I said something out loud (really, think about it!). It would also be, ironically, a blow to my confidence to second-guess myself after every thought I brought up to other people.
In her post Leanse writes:
In a room full of young entrepreneurs, a nice even mix of men and women, I asked two people — a guy and a girl — to each spend three minutes speaking about their startups. I asked them to leave the room to prepare, and while they were gone I asked the audience to secretly tally the number of times they each said the word “just.”
Unsurprisingly in this context, the female speaker ends up saying “just” far more often than the male one.
Other than this single anecdote, the post cites no real research. Instead, it leans on the myth that if only women could act just a little bit more like men, they would finally be able to succeed in the workplace.
This is not good advice. Actual studies show that when women act like men in the workplace, they are often told to stop being so abrasive.
Kieran Snyder writes in Fortune that after looking over 248 performance reviews, “negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”
Further, linguist Debbie Cameron writes that this idea that women need to use more forceful language, or at least that they need to cut down on their “weak” language, has mostly been debunked by linguists.
Cameron writes that when “researchers looked in detail at the way words like ‘just’ were actually used, it became apparent that they don’t only have one function. In some contexts ‘just’ does do the job of a hedge, but in others it acts as a booster, the opposite of a hedge. Think of Nike’s slogan, ‘Just do it’.”
Further, Cameron says, “just” is often used to soften a request; it’s a polite gesture that says you know that you are asking someone to do something they don’t have to.
This happens every day in the working world. The business world runs on favours. Cameron gives the example of a journalist asking for comment from an expert: “Is it OK if I just ask you a couple of questions?” (I can confirm I use hedging in this context on cold calls all the time.)
In my favourite part of Cameron’s argument, she compares policing the language of women to policing their bodies:
Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’
Urging women not to use specific words is not about empowerment. It’s about selling women something by putting them down. And that’s ultimately destructive to the mission of getting women ahead in the workplace.
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