He’s “Assertive,” She’s “Bossy”: The Double-Standard Language of Gender

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Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, fired the paper’s Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, after she served only three years as the first woman in this top position. Though reports conflict over the cause of the firing, Sulzberger claimed that “I chose to appoint a new leader of our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects….”

Abramson seems to have talked with top officials at the paper about the apparent discrepancy between what she is paid in her position compared to a substantially higher salary paid to men who previously held the same rank and title. This, together with allegations over Abramson’s supposed brusque personality and management style “may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy.'”
According to The New Yorker, “Abe Rosenthal, an executive editor during the late seventies and eighties, was never considered a subtle personality, to say the least. And so there is a reason that gender has been widely discussed in relation to Abramson’s firing and how she was judged, even if it was not the decisive factor.”
Regardless of what was the basis for her firing, it is clear that social customs and norms reinforce many shared preconceptions about the sexes in and out of the business world. Some of these may be inconsistent or even contradictory, but they share the common element that they prescribe rules of conduct for us all. These preconceived notions, or stereotypes, become standardized mental pictures that societies hold representing oversimplified opinions, attitudes, of judgments.
I define”sexism” as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on the sex we are assigned at birth, especially against females and intersex people, and is founded on a patriarchal structure of male dominance promoted through individual, institutional,social, and cultural systems.
Language itself often reinforces sexist stereotypes. Indeed, the language we use expresses the way we experience the world around us, and the words people use in talking about the sexes reveal social attitudes that tend to maintain sexist behaviors.
When men and women both exhibit similar outward behaviors, the sex we are assigned at birth will often determine the societal stereotype affixed to that behavior.
For example, what may be seen as “assertive” behavior in a man may be called “pushiness” in a woman. A man may be seen as being “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” whereas a woman is accused of being “emotional” or “on the rag.” Where a man is viewed as “confident” or “firm,” a woman, on the other hand is considered “stubborn” or “b–chy.”
When a woman aims to be a corporate executive, stepping outside the gender role assigned to her, she is sometimes accused of “trying to be like a man” and considered “too masculine.”
Though referring to non-human animals, these names are sometimes applied to people depending on their assigned sex. For example, people refer to males as “studs,” “stallions,” “bucks,” “wolves,” and “lions,” whereas females are “foxes,” “kittens,” “pussies,” “bunnies,” “birds,” “chicks,” “lambs,” “b–ches,” “shrews,” “cows,” “dogs,” “nags,” and “sows.” The animals used to refer to males signify bravery or sexual prowess, while those applied to females tend to be either negative in tone or they cast females in the role of sexually-passive objects.
Other words, usually used as “masculine” and “feminine” nouns, have not-so-subtle differences in meaning that reflect the values placed on males over females. Masculine nouns include “brave,” “king,” “wizard,” “landlord,” “patron,” “grandfatherly advice,” “sir,” “master,” “bachelor,” “host,” “player,” “red-blooded American,” “the stronger sex.”Feminine nouns include “squaw,” “queen,” “dame,” “broad,” “witch,” “landlady,” “matron,” “old wives’ tale,” “the weaker sex,” “madam,” “ho,” “whore,” “slut,” “nymphomaniac,” “maiden,” “mistress,” “bachelorette,” “hostess,” “old maid,” “old bag,” “easy,” “frigid,” she has a “maiden name,” and is a “cock tease.”
In addition, some words seem to apply almost exclusively to females, such as “flirt,” “moody,” and “hysterical,” carrying negative connotations. In fact, the term “hysteria” from the 19th century C.E. was used to refer to women only, and was thought to be caused by a disturbance in the uterus, from the so-called “wondering” or “floating womb.”
Taken in tandem, these linguistic double standards reflect the sexism still enforced within our society.
Throughout history, examples abound of male domination over the rights and lives of women and girls. Men denied women the vote until women fought hard and demanded the rights of political enfranchisement, though women in some countries today still are restricted from voting; strictly enforced gender-based social roles mandated without choice that women’s only option was to remain in the home to undertake cleaning and childcare duties; women were and continue to be by far the primary target of harassment, abuse, physical assault, and rape by men; women were and remain locked out of many professions; rules required that women teachers relinquish their jobs after marriage; in fact, the institution of marriage itself was structured on a foundation of male domination with men serving as the so-called “head of the household” and taking on sole ownership of all property thereby restricting these rights from women. In other words, women have been constructed as second-class and even third-class citizens, but certainly not as victims, because through it all, women as a group have challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal constraints.
Though many women and men are fully aware of the continuing existence of sexism and male privilege, and they are working tirelessly for its eradication, many others, however, fail to perceive its harmful effects on themselves and others. This apparent invisibility of sexism and male privilege in many countries, in fact, not only fortifies but, indeed, strengthens this form of oppression and privilege by perpetuating patriarchal hegemony in such a way as to avoid detection.
In other words, male dominance is maintained by its relative invisibility (though for many of us, it stands as blatantly obvious), and with this relative invisibility, privilege escapes analysis and scrutiny, interrogation and confrontation by many. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” and when anyone poses a challenge or attempts to reveal its true impact and significance, those in the dominant group brand them as “subversive” or even “accuse” them of being “overly analytical” or “too sensitive.” Possibly those who make these accusations are not themselves sufficiently analytical or sensitive.
I have heard some people refer to our current times as a “post-Feminist” era, where sexism and male privilege no longer impose major social barriers. They are referring to “Feminism,” which can be defined as the cultural, political, economic, and civil rights movement for the advancement of equality and equity between the sexes.
For me this brings to mind a cleaver and I believe insightful bumper sticker produced by the National Association for Women: “I’ll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Patriarchy.” Unfortunately, however, the patriarchy is still alive and fully functioning.
I would like to thank Dr. Diane Raymond for her invaluable input into this commentary.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author ofWarren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice(Purple Press); editor ofHomophobia: How We All Pay the Price(Beacon Press), and co-editor ofReadings for Diversity and Social Justice(Routledge) andInvestigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States(Sense).