First of all, Happy New Year to you! It feels like 2016 has had a somewhat gnarly start, not for me personally, but in the world at large, and online in particular. In our corner of the world, the internet has been aflame with rage, over everything from funding in the arts, to political reshuffles, and over the naming and shaming of men’s behaviour towards women. 2015 was a pivotal year for feminism, in the sense that it’s been discussed and evaluated constantly in the media, with body image being a real hot topic. As an older woman who read this stuff anyway, I can’t experience things from a teenager’s perspective, but I imagine and hope that things have changed a lot, both for young women and men.
Despite this, change is slow in real life. In the last week or so, we’ve had public outrage over a cricketer who thought it was okay to flirt shamelessly with a female TV journalist live on air, and a middle aged British politician who sent sex texts to a teenager on work experience. And of course, the gender pay gap is still alive and well. Things can only get better, but in the meantime, we will see more and more evidence of this, and more Twitter shaming of men who can’t keep their libidos under control. There won’t be a need for the Everyday Sexism project to wind down this year.
As someone who does identify strongly as feminist and a challenger of everyday sexism where I find it, I was intrigued by a story today about a new app that will check your emails for words and phrases that undermine the message you are trying to put out, and underline them, giving you the opportunity to change or delete the email before sending. The app is called Just Not Sorry and was created by an American developer Tami Reiss, after a discussion at a business woman’s network. It comes from the idea that women constantly use language to qualify the leadership decisions that they make, such as ‘I’m sorry but…’ and ‘maybe’ etc etc.
Don’t think that sounds like you? Here’s an example of an email corrected using the app:
In the interests of sounding affirmative myself, I will bet any of my female readers that they have sent an email like this. I know I have. I do it all the time. Even more amusing (or depressing, whichever way you look at it) is this article from the Washington Post about how women would have framed some of the most famous speeches or comments in history, if they hadn’t been made by men. This article was part of the impetus for Reiss’s company to make the app in the first place.
Language and it’s nuances is a fascinating subject and something we don’t often think about too much. In my work situation, I often send emails using these kind of phrases deliberately. For my job, I often have to communicate messages that I know people won’t like. Some of that is about challenging inequalities, so it’s fair to say that people (usually middle aged, straight, white men) find me annoying. Other parts of my job include being seen as ‘the bastard’ who has some influence around funding decisions within the council. I don’t have these powers – it’s ultimately the elected members who do, but often I am the face of it.
Most of all, my job is about trying to bring about change, for which I find that an inclusive, let’s have a discussion about it, type of approach the most effective, even if painful at times. Therefore, when I send emails about subjects that I know will be difficult for the people who are receiving them, I use these qualifying phrases a lot. However, sometimes, there are rules or boundaries that are fixed. If there are black and white elements, I am clear about that. If there is room for manoeuvre, then I use phrases such as those that would be underlined in the Just Not Sorry app. If I have bad news to communicate, then I often try and soften it with phrases using the word sorry.
What is interesting to me, is that in my own head, this practice has never been about gender. It’s been about an effective way of working that tries to involve people. I have written emails, re-read them and changed the message, to make them less threatening and more about involving and including people in the change process. After reading about this app today, I now think, should I be more assertive and bossy?
Once upon a time, many moons ago, I went on a training the trainers course that used NLP techniques to build your own confidence as a trainer. It was a great course, and one of the things that struck me was the use of language. There is tons of stuff you can read about this, but the key message here, is that you are more likely to get what you want, both from yourself and other people, if you use phrases like ‘when I do…’ or ‘I will do…’ instead of ‘I hope to…’ and ‘can we…?’ The former is a statement of intent, the latter a possibility. In terms of realising your dreams or goals, this makes sense.
The question is whether this is a result of centuries of gender programming, or actually just a good way of doing business? At the risk of sounding like a reverse sexist, it’s true in my experience that male managers and leaders are more likely to say: this is it, this is what we are doing, get on with it, in an unapologetic fashion. But is this the best way to lead? Perhaps, there is room for both.
As a brief case study, I give you Jeremy Corbyn, the reluctant leader of the Labour Party in Britain (apologies to non UK readers!). He is clearly a man of principle, a left winger who reflects the views of many disillusioned with middle of the road politics. He started his leadership role with, what seemed to me and others, a genuinely inclusive approach. What do people think, let’s have your views etc. I suspect that he might have sent a few internal emails using phrases that would be underlined by Just Not Sorry.
All well and good. Roll forward a few months and the UK ends up bombing Syria. He failed to use the leadership whip to call the party into line against it. Whatever your view on the bombing, this was a time for leadership to enforce the party line, even if some MPs disagreed and we ended up with the bombing anyway. Now it seems he is stumbling about, trying to assert some leadership, having started on a premise that all decisions are inclusive and for sharing. Frankly, it’s a fucking mess. As a side point, he has very few women in his shadow cabinet.
If Queen Leda ruled the world, she would acknowledge that good leadership calls for clarity: about which decisions are up for grabs and which are not. There is a time to be strong and a time to admit that you need the advice and support of your followers. There is room for both.
So, while women should be aware of when they are kowtowing to the assumed power of men, they should also be aware of being too autocratic. The same applies to men. The theory behind this app is undeniably useful, but we should remember that we are humans that need to connect, and no-one has all the answers. Never be afraid to assert yourself. Never be afraid to ask for help.
Until next time,