The seemingly harmless word that’s helping to fuel workplace sexism

Ever been thanked for your 'help'?

If you could eliminate one single word from workplace culture, what would it be? A word that immediately puts male workers on a superior level to that of women, perhaps? A word which discretely encourages gender discrimination and inequality every time it’s used? Of course, we’d ban that word too!

But would you have ever thought that word would be the so seemingly lovely, ‘help’?

In a piece written for Quartz, journalist Lauren Alix Brown analyses the weight of the word in the workplace, and the way in which it’s used.

Ever noticed how a colleague might thank you for ‘helping out’, while giving a male co-worker the nod for his ‘work’ on the very same project? Ever been asked to ‘help’ solve a work related problem, while a male co-worker is asked for his ‘thoughts’ on the matter?

Ah semantics, you wily one.

Yep, ‘help’ is one of those words you probably let slide by, without reading too much into it. But on closer inspection, the way in which the word is regularly used to refer to the work of women, and far less often the work of men, is both remarkable and extremely damaging.

In her piece, Brown refers to Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s discussion, featured in the New York Times, of how successful, professional women often wind up doing ‘office housework’.

“This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it,” they write. “In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal.

“When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player.

“The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish’.”

The pair also cite a study carried out by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, which found that after giving co-workers identical help to prepare for a big meeting, male and female team members were evaluated very differently. The male team member, was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses as a result of his helping out. The woman, however, was awarded the same rating as a man who chose not to help out at all.

Go figure.

Brilliantly summarised by Soraya Chemaly, also writing for Quartz, all these observations underscore the very real problem with the word ‘help’: “The message that women’s time and work is inherently less valuable than that of their male peers’ is a systemic one. It doesn’t end with chores.”

So, we’ll ask you again. if you could eliminate one single work from workplace culture, what would it be?

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