An easy way to #balanceforbetter | Change the Vernacular
Throughout my life and career, I have been exercising my voice in the moment to improve gender parity. I use the word ‘exercise’ because it takes practice to build your voice. I also think practicing in the moment is important because it helps form your voice and confront power structures and the language that perpetuates these structures. We have seen the acceleration of gender parity follow a march, with women and men, but I believe we can march every day if we use our voices in the moment — from casual conversations to board rooms.
I have been regularly exercising my voice with a different kind of boots-on-the-ground tactic — in the moment questioning and calling out sexism. Our vernacular can either create or break down gender barriers. So, calling out sexist behavior and addressing gender distinguished language in the moment, including references to self-identified women as “you guys,” or married women as “Mrs.” without an analogous term for married men, surfaces the problem to enable behavior modification.
Our vernacular can either create or break down gender barriers.
Lexicon scholars recently published Gender Bias and Sexism in Language in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication citing: “Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced…as a consequence, language subtly reproduces the societal asymmetries of status and power in favor of men, which are attached to the corresponding social roles.” This report affirmed what has been gnawing at me for decades in our vernacular.
Although sexism has declined over time, it’s still shockingly persistent. All the more reason to exercise our voices in the moment — no matter how uncomfortable or risky, especially in situations when we are the only woman in the room or at the table. The earlier we start to exercise our voices, the more automatic and effective the questions and call-outs become, and the higher degree of impact we will have over time — collectively.
I have raised many questions over the decades about sexism and lack of gender parity, and have made perhaps thousands of retorts and call-outs. The ability to be sincere, clever, concise or just direct in the moment comes only if you exercise your voice over time. When I was in my 20s, I was putting myself through college and graduate school waiting on tables at a sports bar in Tulsa. I regularly took opportunities in the moment to rebut sexism and unwanted comments, testing my efficacy. Confronting sexism during that time was unusual, albeit I found immediate parity as a graduate assistant in the Entrepreneurial Studies department, working with a Rhodes Scholar who researched and wrote the first academic book on women entrepreneurs.
It was a temporary oasis, as I soon discovered. When I was just beginning a career in finance in the New York area, it wasn’t acceptable to speak out against unsavory after-work entertainment venues or water-cooler sexist banter, which was a common occurrence. Wearing my mens-inspired suit brought no super power of parity.
Today, it is not so unusual to hear about a rebut of sexism, but it is almost never in the moment.
In my 40s, I asked a Fortune 500 board member and private equity investor, “How many women do you have on your board? And why don’t you have a 50–50 split between men and women since your customer base is half women?” Just last summer at a wedding, that same board member told me that he long remembered my question and proudly noted that he now has gender parity on his board.
I am now in my 50s, and the instinct to use my voice is part of who I am. As Chair (not Chairman) and President of Grace Farms Foundation which opened a new kind of public space designed as a catalyst for change and human flourishing, I regularly exercise my voice to actualize our vision and advocate for those who don’t have a voice, particularly those oppressed by one of our most pressing humanitarian issues — contemporary slavery.
Creating a team with other strong voices of women, and men, is paramount — especially when fighting the entropic, brutal criminal enterprise of contemporary slavery in all of its forms, including forced labor and sex trafficking. Krishna Patel, our Justice Initiative Director, is one of the most formidable people working to end systemic contemporary slavery and never tempers her voice — speaking at the United Nations to help pass U.N. Security Council Resolution 2331, which was drafted at a workshop at Grace Farms, unanimously condemning all instances of trafficking in persons in areas affected by armed conflicts. She is a nationally recognized former federal prosecutor who ran one of the first anti-trafficking task forces in the country and now leads our global and local initiatives, while working to launch a global awareness campaign intended to fuel this movement called Unchain.
Part of Grace Farms’ architectural directive is to break down barriers between people and to create new perspectives to advance good in the world. Speaking up when there is a lack of parity or calling out gender biased language can break down barriers to entry — in the workplace, in schools and universities, and in society.
Let’s embrace hopeful progress and use our voices in the moment, creating a world of respect and parity. Our voices matter. Collectively, they are our greatest instrument for change in the world.