The Importance of Language in Business
Recently, I was reviewing a potential partner. I’m looking for ways to more effectively manage my small business.
And by small business, I mean small. I’m the only full-time employee. I have two other occasional workers, both of whom work remotely. We’re going through some growing pains, and some hard lessons have been learned about effective communication.
So I want to learn more about how technology products, particularly apps, can help me manage my two part-time workers more effectively. A messaging platform could let us communicate quickly and easily. An employee engagement app might help us collaborate and learn from each other more efficiently. Interactive quizzes, micro learning, and all sorts of other great tools could help me train my two workers when I’m busy managing my own workload.
Oh. Did I mention I’m a woman? I am. I’m also part of the Millennial generation.
As the business owner and manager, I’m responsible for decisions pertaining to the technology we use at work. For the most part, we don’t need anything too advanced, but occasionally, tools that allow us to work on the go are necessary. And clearly, just plain old email wasn’t enough to truly support my employees when they had questions or needed reminders about deadlines.
So I’m shopping for apps. There are a lot of apps. That means I need to do a lot of research. That’s not really an issue. It’s time-consuming, sure, and the process is slow. But I want to be sure I’m making the right choice for my business.
One provider I was reviewing was quickly stricken from my list. The problem? The language they used in presenting the “ideal” customer.
Who’s the Boss?
The company described their ideal customer as a business owner or manager who had a mobile workforce. The person they described was probably on the younger side of things, as they were open to using new technologies. This person may have even been involved in the tech industry; their views on employee training, learning, and development certainly sounded Google-esque.
All of that jives very well with my identity. I’m a young-ish business owner who has a mobile workforce. So far, I sound like a perfect fit for this provider. Our values seem to line up. So where did things go wrong?
It was all in the language. Somewhere along the line, someone decided they were going to describe their “ideal customer” as he. He knows he needs to engage his workforce. He wants them to develop as people. He knows he needs to provide opportunities for his employees. He, him, his.
It’s like I, a female business owner, don’t even exist.
With that sour taste already in my mouth, I continued perusing their website, where I was treated to video of a man in his late thirties, dressed in a slick navy blue business suit and carrying a briefcase, plastering a sticky note to the computer screen of a young woman with red glasses, red lipstick, and blonde hair in a messy bun. The sticky note said “thank you,” and the girl broke into a grin as Business Man darted away to attend to Important Business.
I look like the girl who got the note, but I occupy the role of Business Man in my company.
The imagery, coupled with the decision to exclusively describe business owners and managers in male terms, seem to say something about the company’s position on the “proper” roles for the sexes in businesses: Men are bosses and managers, women are underlings. Men wear suits and dart off to business meetings, women wear lipstick and stay at the office. Men give recognition, women are recognized.
Saying No to Stereotypes
While this company may not have known what kind of message they were sending, chances are they did. Companies put a lot of thought into these things. And even if they don’t realize it, they are reinforcing stereotypes about men and women in the workplace.
In their scenarios, I do not exist—nowhere did I see a female manager or a woman who seemed to be in a position of power. The guy in the business suit evokes traditional notions of “power” and “corporations,” while the gal was very clearly meant to be portrayed as an underling, receiving praise from her boss. The way the two were dressed made the power differential very clear. In case it wasn’t, the copy that referred to the manager and owner as “he” only made it pretty obvious how I was to interpret these images. He is the business owner.
Do I want to do business with a company that doesn’t seem to believe people like me exist? Do I want to do business with a company that clearly states business managers are “he,” not “she”?
Here’s the problem: I can’t be sure that my every interaction with this company wouldn’t be tinged with subtle misogyny. Will I get a worse deal on pricing because I’m a woman? Would they decide to brand me a “bitch” because I drive a hard line? Will they find me difficult to communicate with because I have a very different managerial style? What about the kind of customer service I get? Will it be top-notch, or will I get subpar service because I’m a woman? If I call in about a problem with the app, will I be forced to listen to someone “mansplain” technology to me, all because I possess a vagina?
While I’d certainly hope not, those are all very real possibilities. The company has a very real tinge of misogyny—intentional or not—in an ad campaign and copy they put up on their website. I would never be able to say for sure if I got poor customer service or a raw deal because the company just isn’t a very good company, or because they treat me differently based on my gender identity. And there’s also the risk that they could treat me poorly because I am a woman, and I’d never really know it. I might know I’m getting poor customer service, but I might not feel there’s anything I can do about it. I might wonder if they treat all of their customers that way, but without contact with other clients, I couldn’t make conclusions.
Worse, the company may not even realize they’re doing it. That’s part of the problem with sexism and misogyny in this day and age. It tends to be an undercurrent. I wouldn’t expect any of their customer service representatives to be so bold as to call me a “dumb broad,” but there are other behaviors I might endure. Sexism is very deeply ingrained in our culture. It makes it very easy for people to assume things about women—like I’m not actually the owner and manager, or that I’m “soft” or a pushover, or that I don’t understand how technology works.
Deciding to Work with a Subtly Sexist Company
On the other hand, I could equally decide to work with this company. One of their problems may be that they haven’t encountered many female business owners or managers. If I and other women who own and operate businesses or occupy managerial roles decide not to work with them, that will never change. They won’t ever see us! We’ll remain an invisible demographic. The company will be able to continue believing that only men are managers, and women are always underlings. If anyone tells them differently, they might not believe it, because their clientele appears to be made up exclusively of men. If there are women business owners and managers, where are they? Why don’t they do business with the company?
The easy conclusion, of course, is we simply do not exist—or we don’t exist in great enough numbers to be a demographic concern. We’d be an itty bitty slice of their clientele pie, so small it’s not likely worth their time to market to us.
That’s one very compelling reason to partner with a company like this: to let them know we do exist. The more female business owners and managers that make themselves known, the more the company may realize that their marketing strategy is wrong—they’re leaving out a large section of the market and alienating us simply by not including us. The more visible we are, the more the company may realize that women do make up a significant share of the market making decisions on what programs and apps to purchase—and they might revise their strategy. They might revamp their services, their marketing, or even their customer service to better serve female managers.
That can’t change if we remain an invisible demographic.
Some might say that deciding not to work with the company is taking the easy way out. I’m not challenging their ideas, and if I simply take my business elsewhere, I can’t effect change. I’m allowing women to remain an invisible demographic for this company.
And there’s some truth to that. But here’s the thing: I can’t be sure this attitude doesn’t pervade the entire company, from their products to their services to everything in between. As a consumer, I want to know I’m getting what’s right for me. That means good service, products that fit my needs, and a company with values that align with my own.
Unfortunately, this company seems to have one major flaw. Its ideas about gender roles in the workplace appear to be stuck in the 1950s. I’m going to look for a company that already believes in women as an important part of their clientele. I shouldn’t have to change anyone’s mind. If market capitalism works the way it should, then the company that embraces outmoded stereotypes may not last long on the market—in part because they’re not effectively reaching a large number of potential customers. There are other companies who already see me as an equal and important part of their customer base, and those companies deserve my business.
This is ultimately why businesses need to consider their corporate communications so carefully. People at the corporation made these decisions, which communicate many things to me about the business. It’s unfortunate that those communications aren’t all positive, and perhaps it was unintentional messaging. It is certainly easy enough to fall into the trap of portraying a man as the business owner or manager, and leaving women to underling roles. But that’s why we have to think about these things. What is this imaging saying? What messages can people take away from it? We have to think about the messages we intend, and the messages that people might perceive anyway.
Awareness Is Everything
Our choices about how we communicate say a lot about us. In business communications, in marketing, it says a lot about our companies. Using gendered language is always a gamble for this reason. Unless you know your target market is exclusively male or female, you cannot safely pick one or the other without the risk of alienating potential clients. It’s one thing to advertise Diva cups or tampons using female pronouns exclusively—it would be another to market cars or computers or phones that way.
And if you do decide to take the risk, you must recognize you’re taking the risk of losing customers. It’s a calculated risk. It’s actually a fairly large one for most companies and most products. Women are fifty-one percent of the population—we’re a majority. As the world of work continues to revolutionize in terms of how, where, and when we work, you can expect more variations in terms of corporate structure. And that means more women—like myself–in charge of more firms, in more industries. And that’s a good thing. But it means that companies absolutely must pay attention to the messages they send about who women are and what roles we occupy.
I am a business owner, not an underling, and I’m not going to do business with a company that seems to believe that I should be under the thumb of a male manager in a power suit. Sorry, not sorry.