Why ‘driven’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘self-motivated’ are now chauvinistic words

Why ‘driven’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘self-motivated’ are now chauvinistic words

Besides the famous ‘electric shock’ experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1970s, were the equally controversial findings on conformity by Solomon Asch.  In a nutshell, these involved a group of participants judging the length of a straight line projected on a screen.  One of the participants was authentic and the remainder were stooges paid to convince the participant that his perceptions were inaccurate.  

I remember being shocked when I first saw video extracts from these experiments, in which participants changed their views and appeared to unconsciously change their perception, to fall in line with the other participants, despite the other participants being clearly wrong (at least it was clear to all of us watching the video).  

I understand that, like many social science findings of the time, these results were misreported in most textbooks and reviews – and still are, according to Wikipedia – and that only a small minority of the participants responded this way.  But the visceral shock of the videos remained with me.

Well it seems that a similar process is happening in England, as illogical and often absurd comments have been repeated so many times that intelligent people are starting to treat them as reasonable.  

The latest instance, following the recent nonsense over Lionel Shriver’s article, is a Guardian article published this evening, 19 June, by Louise Tickle.  The article came to my attention via a retweet of a message by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse stating ‘Well done for raising this’, echoed by a Dr Tim O’Brien congratulating an ‘excellent article … about the nature and impact of gendered language’.  

Well, these people have academic titles so I figured that the article must make some sense.  Little did I know that I was proving to be just one more of Solomon Asch’s unsuspecting victims.

The article, titled ‘Language in school job ads puts women off headteacher roles’ quickly provided us with an example of the kind of language being referred to:

“Driven, ambitious and self-motivated natural leader”

I began to imagine a participant in Asch’s study being asked about the word ‘self-motivated’, “Is it sexist?” “Are you sure it isn’t?” “But all these clever people seem to think it is?” What makes you think you’re so special to think differently?”

Thankfully the article provided us with an explanation of ‘gendered language’, kindly given by Vivienne Porritt.  For those who still live in the really really real world, ‘gendered language’ isn’t what the rest of us mean, a language like Spanish or Russian that is inflected based on gender, it’s a newspeak word formed by an ideological group to try and distort our perception of the world.  

So then what is ‘gendered language’?  Well according to Porritt it’s based not only on the words used, but rather the combination and frequency of them.  So the word ‘ambitious’ on its own is not directly sexist, but if you repeat it then it is a clear “turn-off for women seeking to apply for senior roles”.

This sentiment is then echoed by Philippa Latham (who doesn’t like the phrase ‘strong on behaviour’) and Jennifer Morton (who doesn’t like macho phrases such as ‘is not afraid to stand up to people’).

The rest of the article looks at various anecdotes beyond the world of education, where we are told that this ‘unconscious gender bias’ evidenced by the use of such clearly male-oriented words is also a problem.

So what to make of it?  In the past when we read such nonsense in the newspaper, it was easy to toss it aside and assume that it was a provocative article to sell papers, and believe that nobody took it very seriously.  But now with Twitter it’s possible to see that people do take it seriously and perceptions are actually being distorted by this twaddle.  I currently live outside the UK, so am somewhat shielded from the conformity effects documented in Solomon Asch’s studies.  Let’s hope that by responding to such articles with a modicum of sense I can provide an antidote for my fellow citizens who live amongst such propaganda.

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