The Difficult Woman: A Vocabulary Lesson

The Atlantic’s David Frum recently tweeted:  “A female friend just lost a job for being ‘difficult.’ As she narrated what had happened, it struck me:  A difficult woman is one who asks for the things I get without having to ask for them.”

When I read this, the description of his friend as a “difficult woman” struck a deep nerve. And it raised a question, why are there no  “difficult” men, or only difficult women? That led me to think about all the ways we talk about women that reinforce the old prejudices and stereotypes—and how that hurts women at work.

Almost thirty years ago, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).  Ann Hopkins sued for sex discrimination after being denied partnership at Price Waterhouse.  Though her work was praised, she was criticized sharply for her interpersonal skills—or lack thereof.  She was accused of being abrasive, overly aggressive, and unduly harsh.  Some criticized her as  “a lady using foul language.”  Others suggested she should walk, talk, and dress more femininely. Oh, and wear make-up.  Another partner suggested she could benefit from a course in “charm school.”  The Supreme Court agreed these comments were evidence of actionable discrimination because they showed sex stereotypes at work.  When her employer voted not to make her a partner, those stereotypes hurt Ms. Hopkins in her employment.

Though that Supreme Court opinion was issued almost 30 years ago, the stereotypical “difficult woman” persists. More troubling, the consequences from words applying stereotypes to women continue.

An excellent article in The Telegraph listed 25 words used only to describe women.  These words include feisty, frigid, frumpy, bitchy, bossy, emotional, high-maintenance, hysterical, illogical, pushy, shrill, and working mother.  The last one is my favorite:  when was the last time you called a male employee a “working father?”  You can read the full list here:

When these words are used to describe a woman, it isn’t flattering.

How do these words hurt women at work? It is simple:  repetition, repetition, repetition.  The repetition of these unflattering words about women in the workplace erodes the confidence people have in their ability to perform their jobs.

If you have a choice between giving a plum job assignment to a male employee and a female employee, who gets the job assignment if  you’ve heard the woman described as high maintenance and difficult? Even if you’ve heard the male employee described as “demanding” and “tough,” you may think those are positive attributes for him.  But you never will think of a high maintenance and difficult female in the same positive light as your demanding and tough male.

What to do about this vocabulary and these stereotypes?  Awareness is the first step. Each person and each company must consider the often unconscious,  implicit biases existing in the workplace that contribute to using these words.  Taking the Implicit Bias test is a good start:  If nothing else, this test opens eyes on the existence of implicit biases.

Each person should make conscious choices to be more selective in the words used to describe others. For example, my husband deleted the word “shrill” from his vocabulary once he realized it is only used to describe women in a negative way.  He’ll still find other words to make his point—but those words will apply to both men and women.  If we all commit to be more sensitive to the language we use, it is a good start

Women who ask for what they deserve should not be described as difficult.  Women who ask for what their male peers received without even asking for it should not be described as difficult.  And women who ask for what their male peers receive definitely should not be fired for that ask.