Women’s advocacy must start with language

We have more than one million words in the English language, according to the Global Language Monitor. These words have the power to cajole, to persuade, to encourage.

Wendy Fu | Daily Trojan

Wendy Fu | Daily Trojan


But at times, we fail to recognize that our words have the power to transform the course of a topic as heavy as women’s rights.

A recent Pantene ad released in the Phillipines conveyed this idea in the most precise manner. In a series of different shots, Pantene successfully shows how different labels are associated with each gender. In one scene, the onscreen text reads “Persuasive” while a man is speaking at a podium. As the camera turns, a woman takes his place, and the text changes to “Pushy.” Likewise, an overworked man, neglecting his duties as a father, is labeled “Dedicated,” while his female counterpart is labeled “Selfish.”

Mashable calls Pantene’s work, along with Dove’s, pioneers of “women’s advocacy language,” showcasing the double standard intrinsic to our everyday life.

Examples of such language we use with men versus women are infinite.

At a World Economic Forum event on Jan. 27, 2012, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Little girls are called bossy… But I challenge you to find someone calling a little boy bossy. You won’t see it. They’re not ‘bossy.’ That’s the natural order of things.”

AskMen published an article titled “Why Women Can Be Bitches.” The first sentence of the article states, “We all know the classic bitches: Women who speak their mind rather than bite their tongue.”

But would the same ever be said about a man? Arguably, no.

The effects of our language use is deeply troubling; it is this language that we use that further worsens the infamous “ambition gap.”

Sandberg has discussed the female ambition gap extensively.

“We teach women as young as 4 to lay back, be communal … we need our girls to be as ambitious to achieve in the workforce,” Sandberg said at the World Economic Forum Conference.

Women are seemingly socialized into the same gender roles. Though working as a hair stylist or a secretary, a babysitter or a nurse are certainly noble roles, it’s the men who we tend to see suited up, charging into boardrooms, briefcase in hand.

The ambition gap does not stop with executive roles. The biggest ambition gap, as demonstrated by numerous studies, exists in politics.

In one study conducted by American University’s School of Public Affairs, associate professor of government Jennifer Lawless and Loyola Marymount University professor of political science Richard Fox concluded that,“Young women are less likely than young men ever to have considered running for office, to express interest in a candidacy at some point in the future, or to consider elective office a desirable profession.”

Incorporating programming that addresses this issue is necessary for growth. Whether it’s implementing new campus initiatives or changing the way little girls are raised from birth, various avenues to close the ambition gap exist. But there’s one critical step that starts today: changing the way we speak.

At 11 years old, my younger sister is bright-eyed and beautiful: She dreams of growing up to become a doctor, growing up to save lives and battle diseases. Not only can I hope that this dream of hers comes true, but I can help it happen. It starts with calling her intelligent and not just pretty. It starts with calling her ambitious and not just cute. My words, our words, can restructure the way little girls and all women think about themselves. The time starts now.


Rini Sampath is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Her column, “Leaning In,” runs Mondays.


1 reply
  1. Ras
    Ras says:

    A man who gets up early everyday to work at a job he is lukewarm about so he can provide for his family – that is called “NORMAL”

    A woman who does the same thing – that is called “COURAGEOUS, DEDICATED, etc.

    A woman who sits around the house watching TV and reading magazines all day long while the husband works – that is called a “DOMESTIC GODDESS”

    a man who sits around the house watching TV and reading magazines all day long while the wife works – that is called “LEECH, SCUM, etc”

    Let’s not forget the hypocrisy runs both ways.

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