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Leaning In And Opting Out Of Gender-Specific Language

04/11/2015 9:21 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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I 'leaned in' the other day. Explained what I needed at work. Asked for clarification. Was Very Clear. And at the end, thanked HRH for his patience and time.

"It's okay," he tossed over his shoulder as I left. "I don't mind you being pushy."

#PUSHY? Me? WHAT?

Had my style guru @SherylSandberg ever been called 'pushy' on her way to becoming Facebook Chief Operating Officer? Was the title of her 2013 best seller Lean in: Women, Work and The Will To Lead originally Pushy Bitch: Be Prepared for the Slapdown, before she realised that happy endings sell better?

At 5.30 am last Friday morning, before kids and work kicked in, I therapeutically chopped up the watermelon for the fruit kebabs needed for the endurance test that is under age cricket that night, and came to an awful conclusion -- I've fallen over the invisible line of empowerment into a sand pit of pejorative adjectives, never to be retrieved.

Pushy.

Every time I tell this story, women laugh knowingly.

"It's one of these areas where women tend to be misunderstood," comforts Susan Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary. "In a fellow, a clear-thinking, insightful person who understands the job and knows what needs to be done and does it fearlessly would be seen as a leader amongst men."

Well, you can bet your butt it certainly wasn't on my mind to be 'unpleasantly self-assertive' or 'selfishly determined to succeed' or however the dictionary defines 'pushy' when we had our little work chat. 'Consistently persistent', yes. 'Passionate', okay. 'Bold', orright. 'Focussed', yeah. 'Aiming high', certainly. 'Feeling happy and safe with the guy', absobloodylutely.

But just as a great work of art assumes meaning in the viewer's gaze rather than the creator's brush strokes, so too, I reckon, a conversation resonates in the listening rather than the speech. In shopping terms that means the gift may not match the receipt. Which makes things very hard to take back.

Okay, so I'll wear 'pushful'. In 1755 the great Samuel Johnson defined 'pushful' as enterprising and vigorous, and in the 1860s 'pushful' was to be active and energetic in pursuing one's affairs. Its last splutter of life was seen in 2003 in the North of England Home Service, with a woman speaking of a man: "You have to be more pushful if you ever expect to get anywhere."

And then it just faded away to mean something else altogether.

"One law of semantic change," sighs Kate Burridge, Linguist and Lecturer at Monash University, "is the bad meanings cancel out the good. Once their reputation is gone, they are irredeemable."

"But pushy is good! You don't get anywhere without being pushy," exclaimed my barrister-to-be-mummy friend, as we helped set up the the torturous Under 11s cricket match at an away match in Woop Woop. "They'd never call a man pushy. They'd call him determined, or dominating -- even forceful."

I threw in Kate Burridge's extra tip about how, as words narrow to have a female application alone, they can become more negative.

"Think 'wanton'," said Burridge. "It used to apply to both sexes, but now pretty much applies to females."

('Wanton' is an interesting example. It once just meant undisciplined. Now it means emulating the Kardashians. P'raps it's the same thing, just plus time.)

There's this dandy little app that lets you split up word use according to gender. Google 'Ngram. It's by no means definitive, but it's a useful indicator of word use. 'Pushy', it seems, peaked in use for men in about 1825, and has declined steadily since then, barring a spurt of popularity in 1900.

For women? Well, it seems 1900 was a time when the word was nicely gender-balanced. But contrary to the male experience, pushy women stayed pretty steady and practically exploded in volume at the same time oral contraceptives came into vogue. (Coincidentally, this is also the time when Sean Connery took over as James Bond. Pushy Galore. Make of this what you will.)

The fruit kebabs turned out brilliantly for cricket that night, still bleeding juice 12 hours later as if they'd been freshly cut. My hurts felt the same way.

That being said, for me, conversations about words and gender, for the most part, have been little fur balls coughed up from the past. I thought we were over it. I myself have called out other women as being pushy. But my use of the word, on reflection, incorporates a grudging admiration for their tenacity and resilience. It doesn't cancel out respect.

Poor little Miss Pushy. Can I ever scrub your name out from the back of the toilet door?

Kate Burridge called back, from Monash University, bottle of linguistic Jif in hand.

"There is actually a word like pushy that's survived such a trashing," she shared excitedly. "'Attitude'. It used to have bad connotations, but now its turned around to be positive."

'Attitude' as in having a distinctive style. Unapologetic for whom you are or where you stand. Possessing of chutzpah.

I like that word. 'Attitude'. I own it. It is a big strong non-gender-specific pair of arms that embraces Miss Pushy with security and love. Phew. I'm safe again.

But here's my question to you, Dear Reader: Is there some style of 'pushy' that women can adopt and still be very clear about getting what they want without risking the put down, however teasing and ironic?

Macquarie Dictionary editor Susan Butler adds a caveat. "But if men don't change and see any direct approach from women as being aggressive, we're back in the dark old ages. You shouldn't have to pretend to be coy or timid to ask clearly for what you want. That's just tedious."

Which part of the communication process has to change? And how? Let me know, please. If you don't mind. And it's not too much trouble. And I'm not putting you out. Etc.

____________

Contact Lisbeth @Addlibbi or on Facebook here.

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