I am a huge tennis fan as many of you know, but was disappointed to turn on my television yesterday to see John Inverdale commentating on the Davis Cup match Italy versus Great Britain. Inverdale ignited a furore last year after the Wimbledon final when he suggested to an audience of millions, that because the new champion Marion Bartoli “was never going to be a looker,” tennis would have been one of her few options as a way forward. She was the one holding the trophy of course and despite some rapid back tracking, he was left with some serious egg on his face and reportedly facing the B.B.C. axe. However, it would appear he is still doing his job despite all the brouhaha. What message does this send out?
The power of leadership language
Unconscious bias, whether related to gender, race, appearance or age, is considered to be one of the most significant “known unknowns” in our cultures today, simply because it is so difficult to measure. One area where is it very self-evident in language usage. Our leaders whether male or female play a pivotal role in the gender balance and diversity policies of our organisations and wider cultures. It’s therefore important that public figures in whatever domain, lead by example. Their behaviour and language choice will be a key component in influencing public thinking and viewpoints to overcome subconscious bias which can exist in all of us.
“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” Albert Schweitzer
Ilene Lang CEO of catalyst talks about benevolent sexism saying “these benevolent stereotypes hurt women because they maintain inequality. Whether she’s the “little lady” or the “woman behind the man” or the soothing creature who exists simply to make men nicer, woman’s “natural” goodness becomes a rationale for why she should be protected from activities and occupations that require stereotypically “macho” qualities.”
In the workplace, all sexism and any sort of stereotyping whether, unintentional, overt, hostile or benevolent, acts as a barrier to prevent women and others fully contributing. The perpetuation of outdated views about women’s role and place in our current society is a strong factor.
In talent management where executive search and coaching contribute to the same degree the example of leaders is vital. After all it’s hard for women be” what they can’t see, read and hear.” Having open, bias free recruitment processes is a significant driver to achieving the appointment of the best candidates, whether male or female. It is surely the only way forward and therefore important that all leaders in the search and recruitment field play a role to achieve this.
I am constantly hearing about illegal questioning of women about their family circumstances a direct reflection of unconscious bias. All women want children and are therefore flight and engagement risks, right? I heard only yesterday how Salma an advertising executive was quizzed about how she would cope with a job and her five month baby. She suggested to the interviewer that the line of questioning was as appropriate as her asking him about his sex life. She was offered the job and turned it down. Not everyone is unconcerned about jeopardising their job search options. Another contact, a woman with no children in her early 50s, (in the full throes of the menopause to boot) was also asked about her family situation. The interviewer had no idea of her personal background and any extenuating circumstances. She should have registered a complaint, but she didn’t.
The recruitment process is the first experience a candidate has of an employer brand and is vital that everyone involved is correctly trained in today’s legal requirements and expectations which involves being politically correct, defined by Merriman Webster as:
conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
In a recent exchange on Twitter, Greg Savage took me to task for my own ” political correctness” when I queried a post title “Suck it up princess. This as good as it gets”. I asked him quite mildly to be fair “Why not prince?” He responded thus:
Political correctness actually plays an important role. Yes, it can be tiresome to have to focus on changing our speech patterns which will go on to impact our subsequent thought and action patterns. It means we indeed have to think and let go of our old ways. This role and adherence to “political correctness” has finally succeeded in outlawing words like “nigger”, “Paki” and ” faggot” and a host of other pejorative terms that used to be in the daily common vernacular of most cultures. These words are now considered to be socially unacceptable and rarely heard in professional circles, or at least the ones I move in.
Language shapes how we feel and react. It’s a key pillar in the culture of change. The number of new words making the Oxford English dictionary every year is phenomenal. As we embrace the new, so we also easily let go of the old. It might take a while but people are pretty adaptable in this regard I find.
However the process also needs strong leadership. And leaders, especially those representing their organisation externally, whether in the hiring process any other way, or anyone at all in the public eye do have to ” watch their language.” All of this contributes to unconscious bias.
What do you think – does leadership language matter?
April 12th Addendum