Court sets the course, mind your language - Hindustan Times
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Court sets the course, mind your language

Oct 04, 2023 10:35 PM IST

Leaders need to pay attention to language and promote gender-inclusive communication

In the introduction to the recent guidelines issued by the Supreme Court (SC) on the use of gender-neutral language, Justice DY Chandrachud writes: “Language is critical to the life of the law. Words are the vehicle through which the values of the law are communicated. Words transmit the ultimate intention of the lawmaker or the judge to the nation. However, the language a judge uses reflects not only their interpretation of the law, but their perception of society as well. Where the language of judicial discourse reflects antiquated or incorrect ideas about women, it inhibits the transformative project of the law and the Constitution of India, which seek to secure equal rights to all persons, irrespective of gender.” What is true for the dispensation of justice is also true for workplace and social settings. The common use of masculine pronouns (such as manager, chairman, human) to refer to both men and women can have harmful effects on both men and women.

As leaders, we need to understand that language has the power to shape social stereotypes (GETTY IMAGES.) PREMIUM
As leaders, we need to understand that language has the power to shape social stereotypes (GETTY IMAGES.)

Lera Boroditsky, (2009) based on her work in MIT labs, showed that language indeed shaped thought. In testing for qualities assigned to something that is given a feminine or masculine gender in different languages, it was shown that the qualities associated with “key” by Germans, in the German language, “key” is masculine whereas in the Spanish language, “key” is associated with being feminine. For those whom German was their primary language, “key” was associated with adjectives such as “hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, whereas the Spanish speakers associated “key” with golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny”.

The case with the use of the word ‘bridge’ is the opposite — it is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. The word ‘bridge’ was associated with adjectives such as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, and Spanish speakers described the bridge as big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering. While a key is a key and a bridge is a bridge, the assignment of masculine or feminine changed the perception of key and bridge for German and Spanish speakers.

As leaders, we need to understand that language has the power to shape social stereotypes, which, in turn, lead to status differentials among men and women employees. Currently, the language we use pegs women lower and is predominantly androcentric. For example, referring to a mixed group of men and women team members as “guys” may seem innocuous and yet it does exclude the women in the group. It would have been all right, if, for brevity, the leader or others referred to the group as “gals” half the time and “guys” half the time. Also, why can men be simply referred to as Mr, irrespective of their marital status, and women need to be referred to as Miss, Ms, or Mrs, to identify their marital status?

Two prominent categories of traits — communality which is considering other people (examples include empathic, affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, nurturant, gentle) and agentic which is dedicated to the pursuit of the self (aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident) — have been shown to be linked to stereotypes in leadership. Many of the communal traits are identified with the feminine and the agentic traits are identified with the masculine. Ideal leaders are typically expected to be agentic by both men and women.

The expectation of communal traits from women in the workplace results in women in the workplace being expected to chime in for all social events — be the pretty face of the organisation, dress up well when there are visitors, serve tea or water when they are at a table (be it at lunch, meeting, or board).

When women refuse to play these roles, they are seen as poor citizens while the same is not said of men managers. Much of this behaviour stems from the stereotypes that are shaped and upheld by the use of gender-biased language.

Thus, I hope as leaders we will take note and start paying attention to our language and lean in to ask others to pay attention to the language used in their teams. Yes, it will seem like extra work in the beginning. People will resist the change but if leaders do not lead change that helps them realise the potential of many and attract talent, what is it that they would rather be doing?

The handbook released by the SC is advisory in nature and not obligatory. It is an opportune moment for leaders (of all kinds of organisations) to use it as a reference point to help start widespread change in the behaviour of their teams.

Neharika Vohra is professor of OB and chairperson, Ashank Desai Centre for Leadership and Organisational Development at IIM Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal

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