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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004

Words can hurt women's careers

By Del Jones
USA Today

Linda Hamburger is no wallflower, and she was working at a Florida utility company when the "F" bomb escaped her mouth in a moment of frustration.

It would not have been a big deal if it had come from a man, but Hamburger says it got her fired for insubordination.

It may be unfair and a double standard, but high-ranking women say careers can be damaged by saying "the hell with it," or other words that seem tame coming from men.

Women near the top say that their advice is to ignore off-color language from male executives and reserve indignation for when it counts: salary and promotion disparities.

Women especially need to watch phrases with a sexual undercurrent, says executive coach Debra Benton and author of "Executive Charisma" and "How to Think Like a CEO."

The examples are endless and seem cliched or innocuous when spoken by men: put the project to bed, stay abreast, blown away, scare the pants off, lie down and take it, ballsy, kiss up, worked my butt off, get it off my chest.

Benton says she has done extensive interviews with almost 100 male CEOs over five years. She asks them what are the intangible things holding qualified women back.

Many say the women make the mistake of trying to fit in with a male vocabulary. But when coming from a woman, certain words steer male minds away from the message and give them something to chortle about among themselves. It has the same effect as if a woman wore a low-cut dress to a meeting, Benton says.

Sandra Shoemaker, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics' vice president of program management, says when women use phrases such as "stay abreast of things," she can tell from the change in the facial expressions and body language that men have lost their train of thought.

Does it do any good to get upset? No, Shoemaker says. Doing so might make the men learn to mask their reactions in the future, but the reaction will not be changed, only hidden.

Benton and Shoemaker say many women are naive, especially young women. They take offense at the double standard, Benton says.

But those who don't speak like men and keep their language toned down "notice an elevation of attention to what they say," Benton says.

"Young women have been pretty much in an equal setting in school," Shoemaker says. "They haven't stopped to think when they enter the business world that not everyone grew up in the same culture. You have to sit down with them and talk about it.

"The point is: It doesn't matter if it's fair or not. You can control yourself a lot better than you can control others."

"I totally agree," says Dianne Durkin, president of management consulting firm Loyalty Factor. "Men in the business world still want women to be prim and proper."

Durkin recalled one technology company where two equally qualified women were up for a promotion.

The one who was passed over would say "Oh, damn" and was otherwise rougher around the edges.

Lisa Kazor, CEO of financial management company Savantage Solutions, says boorish language would be taken as "strange" coming from men or women at her company. "It's a tone set by leadership," she says.

But at some companies, male executives seem to go out of their way to test women by using words like "cocky" to see how they will react, Benton says. Her advice: "Be unfazed. Water off a duck's back. Neither smile nor act offended."

Don't respond in kind. "When they realize they are not shocking you, they'll have more respect," Benton says.

"I have never felt favorably received when I talked like a guy to make a point," says Nancy Wilhelms, president of WestGroup Marketing Communications. "I'm no prude, and I'm not saying I haven't done it, but it was never needed. Afterward, I felt really stupid."