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Are you a “difficult” female?

Camille McDonald - Family Lawyer Adelaide

Camille McDonald - Family Lawyer, Andersons Solicitors

Opinion Piece

Misogynistic language in the legal profession and beyond

Difficult. Bossy. Control Freak. Precious. Drama Queen.

As a female professional these terms of discourse in relation to the female sex have not gone unnoticed by me throughout my career. Whether aimed directly at me, or at female colleagues, it is undeniable that the use of such misogynistic language towards female professionals (and females in general) is rife.

What is misogynistic language you may ask?

Put simply, it is language that belittles and prejudices women. It can be direct, surreptitious or my personal favourite (sense my sarcasm), put in the context of a joke. 

Perhaps you have used misogynist language yourself? No really. Think about it. As humans we often reflexively use such language in everyday conversation out of sheer habit.

Even those with genuine intentions or those who brand themselves as equal opportunists have naively fallen into such a trap. Even women use misogynistic language.  Terms are thrown around casually without the perpetrator understanding the full impact of those words or terms.

Here are just a few:

“A bit bossy today are we?”

“Don’t rock the boat love.”

“Calm down sweetheart.”

“Don’t be sensitive.”

“It must be that time of the month.”

“You women are all the same!”

“What a bitch!”

“She’s a bit precious.”

While these examples barely touch the surface of the misogynist language used against female professionals on a daily basis, it shows how comments seemingly made in jest or even more direct, hit right to the centre of what misogynistic language ultimately results in, deliberately or not; the disempowerment of women. 

"I’ve been called 'bossy' when participating in decision making processes and yet some men in the same scenario are considered 'leaders'."

I have been referred to by men in my profession as “precious” for unapologetically wearing makeup and enjoying fashion; I refuse to masculinise myself to make my fellow professionals more comfortable. I’ve been referred to as “difficult” for voicing my opinion on pivotal issues where others choose to turn a blind eye while at the same time, some men raising the same issues are considered “thought leaders”. I’ve been called “bossy” when participating in decision making processes and yet some men in the same scenario are considered “leaders”.

Recently, I used misogynistic language myself and it was my husband who called me out on it. Our bulldog Rupert was being a sook and I said to him “don’t be such a girl Rupert”. See? Even those of us who are ultra-aware of the issue can still fall into habitual traps.

Make no mistake that when such terms are used in relation to a male professional they are spoken in a more positive and confident way. Men are referred to as “confident”, “in control” and “dynamic” rather than “bossy”, “a control freak” and “insecure”.

Reality check: the typical double standard is alive and well.

As Sheryl Sandberg said:

What works for men does not always work for women, because success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. That's what the research shows. As a man gets more successful, everyone is rooting for him. As a woman gets more successful, both men and women like her less”.

Perhaps this can partially explain the ongoing presence of misogynistic language toward women in professional environments. At its core is the age-old insecurity that men and even fellow women feel toward a woman who is competent, hard-working and successful at what she does. This can apply equally and simultaneously in both the workforce and the home.

" women are just overly sensitive,
get over it!"

And still, in opposition to the overwhelming research, data and evidence that misogynistic language and behaviour is ever present in professional and outer realms, there are groups of males (generally white, middle class men) saying to females about the subject, “you women are just overly sensitive, get over it!”.

I would be curious to see their reaction if the tables of misogyny were turned. And not just for a day, but from the dawn of time. Put simply, it is exhausting and it is disenfranchising.

So what can you practically do about misogyny in the workplace, and even beyond? I anticipate that most women have been in a social situation with a group of men where your opinion is laughed at, joked about or dismissed in a misogynistic way?

A few tips for dealing with misogynistic language and behaviour

  1. Call it when you hear it.
  2. Don’t buy into such language or use such language yourself. Test yourself for a whole week by making yourself aware of what misogynistic language is and seeing if you or anyone around you uses it.
  3. Make the younger generations aware of the power of such language and its harmful impact by assisting them to replace/restructure words they may use such as “bossy”, “drama queen” or “precious” when it comes to girls.
  4. Talk about the issue and keep talking. Bringing attention and awareness counts for much.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and likewise this issue won’t be resolved rapidly. But at the very least, bringing awareness by talking about it will increase understanding. And with understanding comes change.

Camille McDonald
Senior Associate
Andersons Solicitors Family Law