Killing the competition

Raina Brands looks at the military metaphors that are cutting women out of business

Sales ‘forces’ ‘target’ clients. Leaders are encouraged to spend time ‘in the trenches’ or ‘out on the front lines’ with their employees. In meetings ideas are ‘run up the flagpole’. There is talk of ‘killing the competition’, of ‘fighting uphill battles’ and ‘copping flak’. Companies develop ‘strategy’, ‘drive campaigns’ and use ‘guerrilla marketing’. Even the titles of the highest leaders in corporations such as ‘Chief Executive Officer’ and ‘Chief Operating Officer’ conjure up images of military and even tribal warfare.

Such jargon has long been a source of amusement and irritation in the business world. But its effects reach far deeper: the use of military parlance in organisations may reinforce historically-rooted and implicitly held beliefs that business is no place for a woman.

Military language helps perpetuate cultures of masculinity in organisations that by definition, exclude women. The military remains largely a male domain, as current debates on whether women should be allowed to serve in combat roles attest to. Jargon is a kind of linguistic short-hand that helps people co-ordinate their work. But it also signals taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions held by organisational members about ‘who we are’ and the ‘way we do things’. Military terms have powerful, often vivid associations with men. Organisations that rely on military language send signals about the kind of people that fit in – men – and the kind of qualities that are valued – masculinity – within them.

Military jargon often subtly prevents women from participating in the cultural life of organisations. Jargon is ‘insider’ knowledge – indeed, picking up the office lingo is a key task when people start a new job. A woman, eager to rise in the workplace, may well be tempted to adopt military jargon in an effort to fit in and quite literally, talk the talk. But her efforts may backfire. Research on gender stereotypes shows that society has different expectations for how men and women should communicate. Whereas aggressive and dominant language is expected and rewarded of men, the opposite is true for women. Women fulfil societal expectations that they will be warm and communal by using more tentative language and adopting participative and inclusive styles of communication. Studies suggest that women who use these typically feminine styles are evaluated more favourably by their colleagues, both as leaders and co-workers. It is difficult to see how women can talk about ‘killing the competition’ and be warm and inclusive - a familiar double-bind for women. And because the use of military language is seen as inappropriate for women, women may never feel that they can fully participate in the boisterous exchanges that are part of organisational life.

The effect of military lingo on women in the workplace should not be overstated, but it should not be understated either. Women make up nearly half the working population, but they remain underrepresented at the highest echelons of organisations, even with the support of legislative and managerial interventions. Language frames thought and action in organisations. Masculine language, like military jargon, frames masculine thought and masculine action. Such cultures are unlikely to foster the kind of inclusivity that women succeed in and indeed, typically seek to be a part of. What is certain then is that we cannot afford to ignore the informal exchanges that are at the heart of organisational life.

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