Comedian Demetri Martin does a comedy bit about how, if you want to sound like a creep, you should just add “. . . ladies” to the end of everything you say: “Thanks for coming to the show . . . ladies.”
“Help, I’ve fallen into a well and I’m trapped . . . ladies.”
It is funny, because it is true. Addressing women with terms of endearment like “ladies,” “baby,” “sweetie,” “girls”, etc. is creepy more often than not. And, in the workplace, it is also highly unprofessional (something worth thinking about as we close out Women's History Month).
Still, these terms of endearment persist, much to the chagrin of women everywhere.
Let us first dispense with the term "political correctness," the idea that we have to police our speech out of fear of being ostracized for fear of offending someone with our words.
Political correctness is invoked ad nauseum to discuss sexism in the workplace. The usual tired response? What you are saying is we cannot be friendly to each other. Or: I call everyone “baby,” so I do not see the problem, and so on. These types of responses are just plain offensive and should stop.
On the other hand, political correctness debates, are ideologically charged, and by consequence generally do not lead to anything productive. So, let us pretend we are just talking about being professional in the workplace.
Of course we all work with, or may work with, people whom we’ve grown to know and even care about, and whom we speak to with some familiarity. No one is saying that familiarity and jocularity are banned from the workplace; in fact, those are some key qualities of a high-performing culture. But I will go further: When everyone on a workforce has deep connections with one other, it is nearly impossible that the culture will fail.
But an equally necessary ingredient to a high-performing culture is mutual respect. Mutual respect does not mean we accept our colleagues for who they are – that’s unconditional love. And anyone who’s worked with a team before knows that the love there is highly conditional: Everyone is expected to perform to a certain professional standard.
Instead, mutual respect means going the extra mile to make others feel comfortable working with you. And that may mean suppressing some of your natural urges, but since when has that kind of suppression not been a strict requirement for participating in any civilized society? The deeper you examine the issue, the more you see that the emperor has no clothes.
The power of empathy
Empathy is why it is a good idea to hold your tongue. If we are talking about motivating employees, empathy is the currency we should use in our emotional banks and the key to human relationships. By contrast, the political correctness debate does not focus on empathy; it is concerned only with pointing fingers.
The "PC" debate wants you to believe that watching what you say is an admission of defeat or surrender, when it is actually a simple act of empathy from one person to another, just like the millions of empathetic acts that happen every day.
At any given moment, someone in the world is making a small sacrifice to make someone else’s day a little better. It is in our nature to do this, but somehow when the debate turns to sexism, it is abstracted into a freedom of speech wedge issue. And I do not know about you, but I’m not buying it.
It seems that we could be treating each other with more respect without losing the values we hold dear. We must remind ourselves that kindness does not cost a thing and is never wasted, a tall order in an era of institutional cynicism.
The late Poet Laureate Maya Angelou taught us that the words you call people do not really matter as much as how you make them feel. When you call a female colleague “girl” or “baby,” and she tells you it makes her feel degraded, stop. Even if you have 100 female friends who love when you say this, this particular woman who's offended is asking you to stop, so do so. Make her feel respected. There is no ideological debate here.
If we have to work together, we have to be mindful of the things we say and do – that's part of the cost of doing business. To that end, here are some modest proposals to how we can stop marginalizing women in the workplace:
• Call women by their names at work. Sounds crazy, I know, but trust me, treating people as individuals is much more rewarding to your culture, productivity and bottom line than treating them like representations of gender. And it is much more rewarding. I cannot stress this enough. Give the “baby,” “girls”, and “sweeties” a rest for eight hours; I promise the world will not descend into an Orwellian dystopia.
• Likewise, women should not be calling their female colleagues “bitches.” When a woman exhibits what we call male qualities like assertiveness or toughness, she is usually labeled a “bitch.” Men often use this stereotype of the “emotional woman” to marginalize their female colleagues in the workplace. So, it makes little sense for women themselves to perpetuate this behavior. Do not hate, participate.
• Pay women equally. It is really simple: Women still get paid around 78% of what men make. So, audit your company's salaries and fix what is wrong. It is breathtaking how we are still having this debate in 2015, but even more breathtaking is the fact that if the problem of the gender pay gap went away tomorrow, it would considerably ease tensions in countless workplaces, in one swift stroke.
A fine line
Make no mistake; you are walking a fine line when dealing with gender issues in the workplace. There is probably a very charismatic boss out there who calls everyone “baby” and is beloved. There are most definitely work cultures that feature very tight friendships among colleagues, where all manner of offensive things are said on a daily basis.
We do not necessarily want that to stop; we know that camaraderie is very important to the success of any team, and that unique cultures deliver unique results.
However, these comments are not addressed to workplaces that have it all figured out. They are speaking to the workplaces where sexism is a problem, and it becomes a problem when someone feels excluded from the fun. If we could all be open and friendly enough, to where nobody would ever get offended at work, that would be great, but we must be adults and understand that pleasing everyone is impossible.
So, as happens at any good company, we should embrace the ideals of professionalism and do what’s best for the group.
Beyond the bluster
There are still truly decent men out there who will call women “baby” just because they are female. These men do this without thinking, and it truly makes women uncomfortable. I hate the idea of political correctness, but I hate the idea of someone being marginalized because of her gender even more, and one does not trump the other.
Sexism in the workplace has been ingrained in our society for so long it can seem harmless, but the damage it wreaks on teams and productivity is real.
So, the real issue is, are we capable of showing restraint at work when it is required? Are we big enough to treat everyone as an individual? Do we have the peace of mind to not turn it into an ideological debate? Once you get past all the divisive bluster, I think we are all more than capable of simply being nicer to each other, when there’s no reason not to be.
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Photo from Westside Story