Double Standard: Can Women Get Away With Using More Foul Language At Work?

“Life is a four letter word.” Lenny Bruce

On this site we often write about all the different ways women are sexually harassed at work either through unwanted advances, assaults or just offensive language used in the workplace. But after talking casually to a few people in various industries it seems that women often use more foul language or tell dirtier jokes at work because they can get away with it more than men. It may be because men are held to a stricter standard in terms of workplace behavior while women can get away with a bit more and they may look at this kind of language and sense of humor as a sense of empowerment.

When Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo was fired back in the fall, she got a ton of attention when she called the board members that fired her a bunch of “doofuses” who “f—– me over” in her first public comments after the now infamous firing-by-phone. “It stands out because it’s not expected,” said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.”"We always take notice of what’s unexpected and women are still not expected to curse, so when they do, it’s noticed more.”

So if women use “salty” language they do get noticed more but can they actually get away with it then as opposed to a man?

Dr. Debra Brittain Davenport of the Davenport Institute told The Grindstone:

“According to the EEOC, the majority of sexual harassment at work is committed by male employees, therefore reinforcing the stereotype that women are more often victimized. This perception could open the door for women to have more freedom in their expression, given that many men may be hesitant to complain or express offense (some may even find it titillating). However, women must be cognizant of how they’re being perceived; they must also consider their female coworkers. I, for one, would not tolerate a foul-mouthed employee, no matter their gender.”

Felecia Scott, Founder of Wild Beauty, told The Grindstone she used to work for a nationally known employment agency. A female coworker there cursed like a sailor apparently. Scott says the woman, “Cussed worse than a drunk sailor with a hooker in each arm ready to get laid. Her mouth was out of control.” But the company write it off as that was just her personality. Scott said if a male employee had tried to talk like that then “the ink on the paper with a written warning was barely dry and placed on their desk.

Amanda L. Sage, owner of Gong Gong Communications, told The Grindstone:

“I’m in my late twenties, a  generation that seems to be the scourge of all other generations, specifically for our lack of manners, informal approach, etc. That  being said, some of the most foul-mouthed people I’ve dealt with were  20-30 years my senior.

As a young, female business owner I encounter a lot of double standards,  but I’m not sure I’d lump swearing into those. I always assume that people don’t like to swear so as not to offend them. If I understand  that they’re ok with it, then I’m more likely to begin using it myself.  But I’m never distasteful or prolific in my use of it with professional  contacts. I just think that falls under bad manners, regardless of gender.

It doesn’t particularly bother me if someone swears and I don’t care  about their gender. It’s more the situation and tone which matters. In  fact, an employee at one of my clients who I recently began dealing with  is a woman in her early 50s and she, hands down, has the dirtiest mouth I’ve ever encountered. I wouldn’t have cared except for she used  certain words as emphasis that really made something sound a lot more  grave than perhaps she meant it to be.”

It’s not that women haven’t always been telling dirtier jokes or swearing for many years, but now, in popular culture, it is a sign of empowerment to be proud of the fact that you have that kind of sense of humor or talk that way naturally. New York Times writer Katie Roiphe got a lot of attention at the end of last year when she wrote an article titled “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risque Remarks.” She wrote, “The majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.” Showing you can dish it out shows you are tough in some circles.

Regina Barreca, a feminist scholar, humorist and English professor at the University of Connecticut, told the Detroit Free Press, “There may be fewer filters. I think there is less a sense of fear of public shaming. We’ve got all kinds of other things that are permissible. In a way, those are hard-won rights that women have been able to sort of gain … where we’ve been able to speak up and be ambitious and be sexual and control parts of our lives.” The vulgar language, the bluntness, the crassness, she says, is a way of further testing boundaries. Often it is younger women who may try this in the workplace but as we heard from the above comments, it also comes from veterans. And look at the female comedians who dominate today? Chelsea Handler, Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman and Whitney Cummings. Yes, their job is to push the envelope but they all swear freely and tell very dirty jokes.

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    • mish

      I curse at work all the time. What’s the big fucking deal?