Written by Dotty Winters


What’s in a name?

The word ‘abrasive’ rubs Dotty Winters up the wrong way.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us. Right?

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg talked just last week about her desire to ban the word ‘bossy’. It might sound like a joke but let’s put it in context. A 2014 study for Fortune.com by Kieran Snyder examined 248 reviews from 180 people, (105 men and 75 women). The reviews came from 28 different companies, all in the tech sector, and included a range of organisational sizes.

One word appeared 17 times in reviews of women, and never in any of the reviews of men: ‘abrasive’. Other words were disproportionately applied to women, including bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational. Aggressive did appear in two reviews of men, in the context of them being urged to be more aggressive. Reviews of women only ever used aggressive as a criticism. The gender of the person writing the review didn’t affect the results of the study.

In this study it wasn’t just the words which are of interest. There were also marked differences in tone. As much as 71 per cent of women received negative (as opposed to constructive) criticism, compared with just two percent of men. This was a small study, done in one sector and because the reviews were submitted, it was partly self-selecting.

With all the inequalities in the world, should we worry so much about the words people use? Yes. If these findings were replicated and if this is shown to be the case on a wider scale, then I think we should be concerned.

“That male colleague of mine who used to consistently refer to me as a ‘girl’ wasn’t making flattering observations about my youthful complexion.”

When was the last time you heard the words bossy, sassy or feisty used to describe a man? Of course each of us can make our own decisions about whether the use of an individual word offends us personally, and we can also choose how we react to it. But if we want to be part of changing attitudes and making the world more equal we all have to be aware of how language is used and tune into what the choice of words can communicate about attitudes. It isn’t enough to choose not to be offended, if your choice, made repeatedly over time, holds others back.

Women in the workplace face a classic double bind. Exhibiting behaviours which fit with the traditionally positive gendered adjectives for women (caring, compassionate, collaborative) is viewed as weak behaviour, and can limit career progression. But exhibiting behaviours which don’t fit this mould can bring criticism. Worst of all, it can feel almost impossible to challenge the feedback you receive on the grounds of sexism. Faced with negative feedback, not many people want to play that card and risk the consequences. That’s why I think we all need to challenge these words when we hear them used about other people.

If I had to guess what people mean when they describe women as abrasive, I’d have to guess that they mean that they sometimes disagree with people and maybe challenge people on their ideas or proposals. Offering constructive challenge and being independently minded are valuable and much-sought-after professional qualities. I don’t think any of us should be in the habit of challenging our colleagues unless it’s done respectfully and with due consideration for their feelings but I don’t think that women should have to meet some higher standard in this in order to avoid being described as abrasive.

Yes, words are only words, but they tell us a lot about what someone thinks. That male colleague of mine who used to consistently refer to me as a “girl” wasn’t making flattering observations about my youthful complexion. He was minimising me and refusing to talk about me as an equal. It may have been benevolent sexism but was sexism nonetheless.

“When was the last time you heard the words bossy, sassy or feisty used to describe a man?”

Women are either equal to men, or they aren’t and language that goes unchallenged is one of the many ways we allow inequality to lurk around in the dusty corners of offices. There are huge and shocking implications for gender inequality worldwide. People die, are refused healthcare, or suffer attack as a result of gender. Faced with these atrocities it can feel petty to gently challenge the unequal use of the word ‘abrasive’ but the same system perpetuates both behaviours and it’s all based on the same flawed logic.

Next time you hear someone describe a colleague as abrasive, feign deep interest. Ask them exactly what they mean, ask follow up questions, really delve into the situation. When you get to the root of exactly which behaviour is being described, ask yourself whether a male colleague behaving in the same way would face the same criticism. If the answer is no, call that bullshit out. If enough of us did this, when men or women are described in these prescriptive, lazy and limiting ways, maybe eventually there would be a little change.

Words are only words, so ask yourself: given that there are so many words available to all of us, is it really too much to ask that people pick the ones which aren’t so corrosive? Someone who is challenged on their words, and who listens to an explanation of why those words might be offensive, and then continues to use those words is sending you a powerful message; they find it inconvenient to consider other people’s feelings. If that’s not abrasive behaviour, I don’t know what is.


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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.