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Language warning-Why women tune out

Wednesday 24 June, 2020
by Cris Parker, Director, The BFSO + Head of The Ethics Alliance

There are some early claims that Generation Z women are smarter with money than their mothers and grandmothers have been. They will need to be. 

These young women, the oldest now turning 25, are making their way in the world at a time when they may have to borrow close to $1 million to buy their first home … and do so while still owing $20,000 on their student debt. They have watched their grandmothers’ generation reap the bitter fruit of a lifetime of caring for others – with inadequate superannuation and low level of savings leading them to a retirement of penury. 

These young women may well say that things will be different for them. But then they have yet to come up against the quagmire of childcare and the fact the men they graduated with still get promoted faster and further. The higher up you go in an organisation, the more evident the gender gaps become.Being clever with money is essential to their survival.

However, while financial institutions run programs to increase financial literacy and to promote women to management and beyond, there is something else they need to look at – language. 

The banking and finance industry has a very masculine culture, reflected in the language that is used. Terms and phrases that originate in sport or war often do not connect with women – or even men from different cultures. When people do not relate to the language used, they switch off. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched a male leader open a presentation with a football anecdote – even when the room is entirely women.

In meetings, people describe courage as “having the balls”. There is no equivalent shorthand term that I can think of that references childbirth as an example of death-defying commitment.

When someone is succeeding, they are “killing it”, when they fail they “bomb”. When the team backs the leader, they “fall into line”. When they are straight-talking they “shoot from the hip”.

All of these descriptions would be fine if they were mixed up with female-friendly equivalents. If, instead of football, there was a tennis analogy. Perhaps there could be a switch between the battlefield description to one that involves driving a car. Note that these alternatives are gender-neutral.

Raising consciousness about the use of language is not about banning gender-specific descriptors in business, but of finding ways to engage everyone. For finance leaders, it means recognising that their attempt to establish a connection with a witty anecdote or colourful metaphor may be driving away 50 per cent of the audience. 


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