Language, Leadership and Women

Language, Leadership and Women

Language is a beautiful, amazing thing. We can use it to articulate our thoughts and share our experiences – and also to shape our world.

The language we use to talk about ourselves and the people around us influences our perceptions. The words we choose can rigidly define us, or can open us up to possibilities; they can lead us to view our world with pessimism, or with optimism. Language, after all, creates the framework for our understanding.

The power of language in shaping perception is an important element of helping women prepare for leadership roles. The way girls are spoken to, and the way women learn to speak about themselves, can be a huge influence on the choices girls and women make about their lives and careers.

In the Ernst & Young Global Building a Better Working World series of blogs on women in leadership, the way language is used to define women’s capabilities and roles is identified as one of the factors in the unconscious bias that continues to be a significant challenge to women moving into leadership roles.

Julie McKay [Executive Director of UN Women Australia] admits that, ten years ago, she never used the word ‘ambitious’ in relation to either her own, or another woman’s career. Now, she deliberately uses the term as much as she can to make the point that it’s OK for women to be ambitious.

In the same post, Lindley Edwards, group CEO of AFG Venture Group, noted that women needed to be more aware of how they spoke about themselves.

“Sometimes, the language we use to tell our stories is not very empowering. I think we need to be quite powerful in saying: I’m here, this is who I am, this is what I do and you are lucky to have me working for you.”

In 2014, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched a campaign – and of course an internet meme – about the word ‘bossy’, noting that assertiveness in boys was perceived as positive, but often seen as negative in girls. “I want every little girl who is told she is bossy,” said Sandberg, “To be told she has leadership skills.”

There are other ways to embrace the language. US comedian, Amy Poehler, doesn’t mind the term ‘bossy’. She told Glamour Magazine in 2011: “To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.”

But the bossy/assertive dichotomy is far from the only example of how language shapes attitudes and perceptions. Women need to speak the language of achievement and success – they need to not only be ambitious, but to embrace the word.

Or, as author and speaker Sonia Choquette says: “Your own words are the bricks and mortar of the dreams you want to realise. Your words are the greatest power you have. The words you choose and their use establish the life you experience.”


Author: Narrelle Harris
Academic Advisor: Professor Amalia Di Iorio

Join the conversation

How much influence does language have over our perceptions of ourselves and our jobs? Share your thoughts with us.

La Trobe University Courses

Study these courses at La Trobe University and become a business leader.

 Read our other posts on Women and Leadership: