Women Are Not “Guys” and Men Are Not the “Norm”

death-of-osama-bin-ladenWe’ve had three stunning examples in less than a week of the cultural headwinds that women are still up against, ranging from the need to “spin” Hillary’s body language, photo-shopping her out of of history and crediting only “the guys” for the complex, clandestine operation that closed the Osama Bin Laden chapter.

First came the riveting photo from the White House Situation Room of President Obama and his national security inner circle monitoring the raid on Bin Laden’s lair.

The good news is that two women – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Counter-terrorism Director Audrey Tomason — are part of that circle of trust. The bad news is the ridiculous angst the photo triggered over the gender differences it captured.   The men were stone-faced, revealing little.  It was only the expression and body language of the most powerful woman in our nation that most clearly communicated the tension, high stakes and, yes, even fears that every leader in the room was experiencing.  No surprise there. We socialize men and women to express emotions very differently.

But here’s the astonishing part. After the now-iconic image was released, Clinton, whose hand was raised to her mouth in the photo, felt she needed to explain the gesture by telling media she was “trying not to cough” at the instant the photo was taken. Are we still that uncomfortable with powerful women behaving like women rather than “men in skirts” that even she needs to spin her actions that deviate from the male norm?  And since when is the behavior of only fifty percent of the human race “the norm”?

The next astonishing example came just a few days later when an Orthodox Jewish, Brooklyn newspaper, Der Tzitung, made the outrageous and journalistically flawed decision to air brush Clinton and Tomason out of the Situation Room photo. Why?  Because the paper has a “long-standing editorial policy” of never publishing photos of women, supposedly to “show respect for women.” Please!  The newspaper has since apologized, but their policy stands and reveals plenty about the deeply-ingrained gender biases that women still face — even in the U.S.

But the most discouraging example of the cultural muck women are still slogging through came disguised as colloquial language used by the president of the United States. During his globally-televised interview with “60 Minutes” about the Bin Laden operation, President Obama used the word “guys” over and over and over. By my count, he used the male-branded word close to 30 times. Not simply to refer to the Seals, who were all guys, but to the entire team of highly-skilled intelligence officers, CIA staff, Cabinet members and military personnel who played essential roles in the operation’s stunning success.

Women Are Not Guys. I’m tired of being told that the word “guys” is “gender neutral” and includes women. I’ve heard that before, decades ago when grammarians and most major newspapers insisted that the pronoun “he” included women and the use of he/she was clumsy and unnecessary. Because enough people understood how powerful language is, today the inclusive “he/she,” flows off our tongues without a second thought.

As the former Director of North America Communications for Ford Motor Company, I have prepared multiple CEOs for high-stakes interviews, including with “60 Minutes.”  A leader’s choice of words in a major interview is critically important.

Here’s my test with language.  Put the shoe on the other gender’s foot.What if we just start using the word “gals” instead of guys every time we are talking about or to a mixed gender group? How long would men tolerate that?  They would be insulted and wouldn’t accept for a minute the explanation that “gals” is now a gender neutral word that includes them.

And I’m not the only one who is tired of being called a guy. Shortly after the “60 Minutes” interview aired, a friend I haven’t been in touch with for years called me from Washington, D.C. to vent her outrage.  “I’m sick and tired of being referred to with male language.  I am not a guy,” she told me. “My husband says I’m over-reacting and being menopausal.  But my reaction has nothing to do with hormones.  The Bin Laden operation was not a male-only effort. There are plenty of women on the intelligence teams that worked for months to prepare this plan.” That was the reaction of a high-level professional who reports directly to the White House and has written speeches for two four star generals. It’s her job to understand the power and impact of well or poorly-chosen language.

Presidential Words Have Power: Here’s the final point.  I expect more of the president of the United States — especially when the world is watching. Barack Obama’s oratorical skills carried him to the White House. His ability to use words to inspire, guide and lead people is one of his greatest strengths. He is also, arguably, one of the most progressive and enlightened leaders in the world when it comes to the urgency of empowering half of the world’s citizens. Millions of women look to the U.S. as their greatest hope for release from cultures that deny them basic human, legal and social rights, let alone freedom from systematic gender violence.

I have just returned from an inspiring 2 ½ days at General Electric’s legendary Leadership Development Center in Crotonville, N.Y.  I was privileged to join 180 women leaders from all over the world for GE’s ninth Leading and Learning conference for its own top female executives and selected guests. This year’s theme was all about the “Passion and Possibilities” that women bring to leadership as catalysts for solving the challenges of our times and moving culture forward.

The closing speaker was Gloria Steinem, who received a standing ovation from the multiple generations of highly-accomplished women in the audience.   Steinem’s message is the same today as when I first heard it in the early 1970’s:  The world becomes stronger by releasing and empowering the uniqueness of each individual.  She challenged us to “Keep sending out signals” that help to move our culture forward.

Here’s my signal: Language is powerful. Words Do Matter.  They reflect our thinking, reveal the biases we all carry and shape our ever-evolving culture.

We will never truly be “one of the guys.”  Just ask any woman who has tried to join Augusta National Golf Course or integrate herself into the “inner circle” of a male-dominant, power group.  So let’s stop passively pretending that it doesn’t matter when we disappear into male-branded language.  Being called “guys” may feel less consequential than photo-shopping women leaders out of historic moments.  But it’s a step backwards rather than forwards in our long cultural march towards the highest development of humanity.  The change we want to see in the world all begins with our own actions. What signals are you sending with your words?

Courtesy of Forbes Blog.

Anne Doyle is the author of Powering Up:  How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders. She has been tested in multiple-leadership laboratories, including men’s sports locker rooms, the auto industry, political office and parenting (which she insists is “the toughest!).  She can be reached at:  www.annedoylestrategies.com, http://www.facebook.com/poweringupwomenbook and Linked In.

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© Copyright 2011  Allison Stuart Kaplan  www.Askinyourface.com LLC

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Comments

  1. Anne; this is very powerful, and I wish you would send it out to be published; It is a marvelous op-ed that would do quite nicely in a course I teach in research and argumentation. I agree with you, but using my Rogerian skills of arugmentation, I also need to look at the opposing side which would then say that as a society, we have become too politically correct. Personally, I think you make a very valid point.

  2. Wow, thank you for putting this out there. Plus why do people call all animals a HE and objects GUYS now? It boggles the mind!

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