Don’t “But” Me—The Grammatical Equivalent of Mansplaining

A response to HBR’s study comparing the words VCs use to describe male vs. female entrepreneurs

Being kind of a big data nerd and a female founder, I was super fascinated when Harvard Business Review came out a few days ago with a study of how VCs use different terminology to describe male and female entrepreneurs (handy infographic provided for your viewing pleasure below).

Yes! Give me that hard data over anecdotal evidence any day.

Not that there wasn’t already hard data about the gender gap in the venture funding space.

A quick and dirty rundown of existing stats:

Just earlier this year, Fortune found that the VC funding gender gap has gotten worse. Women-led companies made up just 4.94% of all VC deals in 2016. Translated to dollar amounts as a percentage of the pie, women received only 2.19% of all venture funding.

It’s also not news that there are few female partners at top VC firms. A TechCrunch analysis found that only 7% of VC partners are women. Just six female investors claimed spots on this year’s Midas List, which names 100 of the top VCs.

A few years ago, a study by Harvard, MIT and Wharton found that VCs preferred to fund ventures pitched by men versus women. The same exact presentation–same slides, same script, same substance–when accompanied by a male voice received funding from 68% of investors, whereas only 31% of investors chose to fund the female voiced pitch.

Numbers don’t lie.

So what does this newest HBR study show?

You can probably already guess (which is sad).

Granted, this study was conducted with only Swedish VCs. But, to be honest, that doesn’t bode well for us in The States. The Nordic countries have consistently led the global pack when it comes to closing the gender gap. Sweden came in at #4 on gender equality in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report. Meanwhile, the United States fell eight places to a solid #28 on the list, beat out by Rwanda (#6) and the Philippines (#7). So, it’s probably safe to assume that the study would not yield much better results if conducted with U.S. VCs.

The descriptive attributes highlighted in the HBR study are quite telling. But, what was more revealing was the seemingly innocuous word choice nestled between the first and second descriptors.

“And” / “But”

The adjectives used to describe male entrepreneurs were more often joined together by “and,” whereas the adjectives used to describe the females were more often contrasted with the word “but.”

I’m no etymologist, but the word “and” typically bolsters and the word “but” typically detracts. There’s a reason, in improv, best practice for building on ideas is to say “yes and…”

“And” is additive.

It expands. It encourages iteration. It’s encompassing. It’s inclusive.

“But” is detractive.

It diminishes. It discredits. It invalidates. It excludes. It’s a word that conveys a zero-sum game. If someone wins, someone else has to lose.

What’s even more revealing, though, is that in each of the instances “but” is used in a phrase to describe a male entrepreneur, it’s used to soften a negative descriptor. (“Arrogant, but very impressive competence.” / “Aggressive, but a really good entrepreneur.”) When used in a phrase to describe a female entrepreneur, it’s used to invalidate a positive descriptor (“Enthusiastic, but weak.” / “Experienced, but worried.” / “Visionary, but with no knowledge of the market.”)

Can it be any more obvious? Data doesn’t discriminate.

Like mansplaining, the word “but” is used to put someone back in her place.

Words carry a ton of weight in shaping perception and solutions to problems. In a UC San Diego study, words used to describe an economic downturn were significant drivers of proposed solutions (i.e., describing the economy as “stalled” vs. “ailing” invites vastly different reform recommendations). Word choice can be crucial in tackling systemic problems. Gender inequality is one of these problems.

Getting a seat at the table is a necessary but only preliminary step to addressing the gender gap. Adequate female representation at the decision-making level is a prerequisite. What’s more difficult is the work that comes after: how do we shape the subsequent conversations? It doesn’t matter if a woman is sitting at the table if she and her fellow tablemates don’t change how we talk about female entrepreneurship. If the people around the table continue to wield the word “but” to excuse male shortcomings while negating the qualifications and legitimate credentials of women, we’re in the same exact place we’ve been this whole time, just with the facade of progress.

We need a paradigm shift in how we talk about women versus men.

If word choice really can shape perception, we need to be more conscientious about the words we use. It’s not just on women. It’s on everyone. Only when we start talking about 50% of the population in a way that encourages and builds up rather than reduces and knocks down will we start building a ladder to help women break the glass ceiling. In the meantime, data doesn’t lie — the words we use are knocking women down more than a few rungs.

Coincidentally, the intersection of word choice and gender is not a novel topic to me. My company analyzed how the two intersect at the college admissions essay level. Take a look at “10 Reasons Your Daughter’s College Essay Won’t Resemble Your Son’s.”

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