Language reflects and incorporates social norms, signaling—whether the speaker is aware of it or not—expectations about the way that people are supposed to behave. Women are supposed to be caring and helpful. Men are supposed to be competitive and assertive. For our purposes, it isn’t necessary to explain how, historically, these conceptions have developed. It is important, however, to observe how traits generally ascribed to women have not served them well in the workplace.
Take a moment to think about how language reinforces stereotypes. Have you ever been told to “man up” when faced with a difficult situation? Or called a “Debbie Downer” when you (rightfully or otherwise) voiced a complaint? How about being your boss’ “right-hand man” even though you’re a woman?
Gendered language can creep into conversation even when someone intends to be nice or congratulatory. Metaphors can be useful for conveying compliments when it’s difficult or cumbersome to articulate exactly why you are impressed. But it’s important to recognize the possibility that the actions in question are deemed praiseworthy for the very reason that they deviate from gender-based stereotypes.
Take the case of “tough cookie.” While the expression is sometimes applied to men, it’s more often than not used to describe women. I’ve been called a tough cookie before, and I have always responded with gratitude. It’s a seemingly innocuous phrase, but dissecting it leads to some trouble. First of all, one has to wonder what distinguishes “tough” from “tough cookie.” Adding cookie, which is ultimately diminutive, modifies the descriptor. The expression therefore doesn’t actually convey that the person is tough; it’s that she’s tough for a girl.
Furthermore, a cookie isn’t expected to be tough. Most of us, myself included, would be pretty upset if we bit into a hard cookie. So what are you really saying when you call someone a tough cookie? Could it mean that when you expected someone to crumble, or be soft, they surprised you and instead stood their ground? At first blush, this might seem like a compliment because the praise is for exceeding what was expected of us. But that at the outset the expectation was so low—that a woman would not be tough or capable of asserting herself—is problematic. Also problematic is whether adding “cookie” is what allows us to comfortably assign the term to a woman. Sure, she’s assertive and authoritative, but she’s also, as she should be, warm and sweet.
Of all the expressions and terms that serve to reinforce stereotypes, cookie may not be the worst of them. But words matter—even when our choices aren’t driven by malice or anachronistic ideas about gender. And in fact, seemingly benign language in the workplace can be just as significant to developing a sense of our professional selves as words that are overtly disparaging. A world without metaphors would be pretty dry, but to the extent we can, let’s keep cookies in the kitchen so that women can go wherever they darn well please.