Why you should care
Because language and bias go hand in hand.
People say talk is cheap. In the digital age — when everyone can instantly express their opinion on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and beyond — that axiom feels truer than ever. What’s the impact of one comment or phrase in a constantly updating sea of abbreviations, emojis and listicles?
Yet the uproar over coverage of the Rio Olympics shows that talk is still powerful. Despite incredible athletic displays by female Olympic athletes including Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Katinka Hosszú and Corey Cogdell-Unrein, the conversation continues to focus on their looks, marital status and family life. In fact, according to a recent study of Olympics coverage by the Cambridge University Press, “men are three times more likely than women to be mentioned in a sporting context, while women are disproportionately described in relation to their marital status, age or appearance.”
Does bias create language, or does language create bias?
Cambridge researcher Sarah Grieves and her colleagues reviewed more than 160 million words from decades of writing about the Olympics, including newspaper articles, tweets, academic papers and blogs. The bias was unavoidable, from descriptions of female athletes that focused on their children and husbands, to reports that consistently compared them to their male counterparts. Media outlets claim they are not intentionally using biased descriptions, and Grieves told CNN that it’s hard to know where this discriminatory language starts, “whether it’s the people reflecting the language they read, or the sports journalists simply reflecting the real language that people are using.”
Does bias create language, or does language create bias? Either way, Olympics coverage is a master class in the subtle ways unconscious bias is expressed and reinforced through language. Whether it’s describing heptathlete Jessica Ennis Hill as a new mom instead of as a former gold medal winner, or complaining about Gabby Douglas’ “unkempt” hair, how we talk about women hugely impacts how we think about them, and vice versa. When we think of female athletes primarily as wives, mothers or aesthetic objects, we reinforce the idea that they aren’t “real” athletes, that they aren’t as serious as male Olympians and that their professional endeavors matter less.
These inequalities are not exclusive to the Olympics, and they don’t only occur every four years. Public pressure to diversify Fortune 1000 companies continues to mount, but despite widely publicized efforts by giants such as Intel and Apple, we’ve seen only modest progress. One major step to making positive change in any organization is to understand how the language we use limits our ability to build diverse teams.
One prominent example is how we write job descriptions. Consciously or not, the language we use often excludes women while appealing strongly to men. Research shows that phrases like “ninja,” “rock star,” “competitive” and “work hard, play hard” — descriptions commonly found on Monster, Glassdoor and LinkedIn — are, in fact, off-putting to women. Use of this language means fewer women will apply for those jobs, making it more difficult to hire a diverse range of candidates.
Increasingly, studies show that diverse teams make organizations more competitive in today’s crowded global market. Whether in sports or in business, we need to use language that values men and women equally, staying mindful of who is included in our words and who is relegated to the sidelines. When words make it harder to attract the best candidates, make your organization stronger and foster more creative teams, then talk isn’t cheap at all; it is incredibly expensive.