The limitations of language

28 Nov 2018

The limitations of language

How unconscious bias pervades language and hinders advancement

Unconscious bias is persistent and toxic, pervading our daily interactions even when we think we’ve controlled for it.

This is not a new phenomenon or research area. In 1952, The Boston Symphony started conducting blind auditions as an attempt to address gender bias in hiring. In the initial stages of the experiment, The Boston Symphony asked musicians to audition from behind a screen to conceal their genders. However, males were still selected more frequently than women until the musicians were asked to remove their shoes. Why? Adjudicators had unconsciously voted against female musicians after hearing their high heels on the floor as they entered the room. The lesson was that the unconscious brain finds ways to enable bias, even when we’ve ostensibly gone to great lengths to override it.

Today, gender bias affecting hiring continues to be present in the workplace and researchers are now looking at the use of language as an enabler of this. Our use of language can limit gender diversity in the workforce, from hiring, to assessments, to terminations. Biased language can be found in everything from job postings, to candidate screening processes and resumé and performance reviews, perpetuating the status quo inside industries, companies, functions and roles.

Why the words you use matter

A recent Harvard Business Review piece found that individuals tend to use language to describe people in ways that support traditionally held stereotypes and beliefs. The article addresses the different words used to describe male and female leaders. This study found that women not only had fewer positive descriptors (four to men’s 10), they also had six times the number of negative descriptors (12 to men’s two). However, the words themselves were also very powerful. The top positive female words were “compassionate” and “enthusiastic,” while the words for men were “analytical” and “competent.” These words can have harmful consequences for women as the male words align more closely with business language and descriptions for ideal candidates in many senior executive roles.

Research also shows that another powerful example of bias can be seen in how we process the traditional male versus female voice. In an interview with Fast Company, Stanford University linguistics professor, Meghan Sumner, discussed numerous studies that she conducted which uncovered how listeners make social judgements about a speaker based on voice. Sumner found that even when a female voice is defined as “trustworthy, clear and comprehensible,” that voice receives less credence when compared with a man’s voice. Conversely, a male voice that is initially defined as “unreliable” or “lacking in intelligence,” receives an upgrade when compared to a woman’s voice.

Unconscious gender bias hinders high performers

In her article on gender bias in performance reviews, behavioural scientist and lawyer Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio asserts that in a performance review, women were 1.4 times more likely than men to receive critically subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critically objective feedback). Cecchi-Dimeglio argues that both gender bias and confirmation bias are apparent in the performance review process – a highly subjective process by nature – leading to double standards and a positive or negative “spin,” depending on whether the reviewed subject was male or female. As a result, gendered language and its implications have the potential to play a key role in the performance review process and can negatively impact a woman’s job performance narrative.

Another example of this can be found in a report published on Fortune.com based on 248 performance reviews in which women bore the brunt of critical feedback. As many as 87.9 per cent of women’s reviews contained critical feedback, compared with 58.8 per cent for men. Moreover, the language used in women’s critical feedback was distinctive – notably, the word “abrasive” was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but was not once used to describe any of the men.

The unfortunate reality for high-performing women is that there can be a very real inverse relationship between a woman’s professional progress and her popularity. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg refers to this as the likeability penalty; women tend to be less liked as they become more successful, whereas men typically become more liked as they achieve success.

How can organizations help neutralize language and normalize diversity?

The above-mentioned research highlights the ways in which language enables unconscious bias and impacts the career of female leaders. Being mindful about your choice of language can help to engage a broader range of individuals in hiring and career advancement, and to normalize female leaders in the workplace. Here are a few takeaways for achieving this:

Use language to attract diverse candidates. When posting jobs, work to ensure gender neutral language is used. Forbes research shows words such as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “committed” will draw more female applicants, while “competitive” and “dominate” attract more male applicants. Also, a thoughtful separation of the “must-have” skills from “nice-to-have” skills, can help attract a more diverse candidate pool, as research shows women often don’t apply unless they feel they are 100 per cent qualified.

Control for human bias. Leveraging better tools for conducting performance reviews can help remove unconscious barriers related to language. Cecchi-Dimeglio recommends using “tailor-made, automated, real-time communication tools with instant feedback on employees’ weekly performance from supervisors, colleagues and clients,” asserting these methods can yield “dramatic” results for women by removing bias through gender-neutral feedback options.

Question snap judgements. Unpack instant decisions and root them in logical, evidence-based information. What is it that caused you to overlook that CV? Was it related to the person’s qualifications or did the use of language tell you something that caused you to make a stereotyped assumption about their ability to succeed in the role?

Challenge perceived barriers. Ask whether apparent obstacles to performance or role alignment are real or perceived. For example, do you believe a candidate or employee assessment would be the same if the individual in question had a different gender? If you or your colleagues can say “yes,” or you admit to being unsure of the answer, this is an important step toward uncovering hidden bias. Make it a practice to continuously question the thinking behind decision making to build awareness of how and when bias is sneaking in to the process.

Ultimately, we’re working toward a future where diversity is the norm. To get there, we need to be willing to acknowledge how much work we still have to do and how susceptible we are to unconscious bias despite our best intentions. Exploring methods that help eliminate gender bias is an exciting and important way to make meaningful progress toward greater organizational diversity and the normalizing of female leadership.

This article was originally published on HR Professional by Odgers Berndston Partner and National Diversity Leader Jane Griffith.