"You don't have to work for Don Draper to know that to be a woman in the workplace is to spend your days bumping up against the wrong words."
"I want to create something of lasting value," Peggy Olson tells Don Draper during her performance review on the latest episode of Mad Men. "In advertising?" Draper laughs, with the incredulity of someone whose ride to the top has never been hindered by boring prerogatives such as the need to constantly defend your ambitions or explain why you have them in the first place. Peggy, the patron saint of career women everywhere, storms out of his office, the eloquence that made her Copy Chief rendered useless because Don doesn't have the words to parse her dreams. Mad Men might owe its magic to the way it evokes the proto-feminist promise of the early seventies, but it also proves how little things have changed since then.
You don't have to work for Don Draper to know that to be a woman in the workplace is to spend your days bumping up against the wrong words. The language of business has conflated success and conquest in a way that speaks to a darkly masculine vision of power, domination and entitlement since the days of the Dutch East India Company, that swashbuckling forerunner of the contemporary corporation, blurred the line between capitalist growth and all-out warfare. And while the modern-day workplace is (mostly) bigger on profits and payoffs than plundering and looting, you just need to eavesdrop on your average board meeting or flip through any business publication in the country to see that a troubling vocabulary has remained intact. Our willingness to "crush" the competition, "headhunt" potential talent, describe clients as "moving targets" and compare industries to "battlegrounds" isn't just wildly unimaginative, it also shows how the words we use in the office are embedded in toxic obsessions of patriarchy. "Military language helps perpetuate cultures of masculinity in organisations that by definition, exclude women," wrote Raina Brands, in a March 2014 article in The Guardian. "Jargon is a kind of linguistic short-hand that helps people co-ordinate their work. But it also signals taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions held by organisational members about who we are and the way we do things."
But if you've ever been unlucky enough to catch your boss air-punching a mirror before a big meeting or been chastised for being too aggressive during a presentation – right after you've been implored to show more backbone – you'll know that internalising these tedious martial metaphors often feels like the only choice. Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, the bestselling manual that tells us to swap girlish second-guessing for militant goal-seeking, and Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg's case for quashing your fears to step into opportunities you're not prepared for, might be considered as essential to success as a well-cut power suit, but their vision of female empowerment still addresses a workplace shaped by masculine hierarchies. The first time I worked out that invoking a piece of jargon in lieu of articulating my feelings meant that men I reported to would take me more seriously, my internal facepalm couldn't match the thrill of cracking a secret code. "Surround yourself with a Plexiglass shield," writes Dr Lois Frankel in Nice Girls. "If you're offered a seat on the rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on," Lean In helpfully suggests.
But although requests to "rally the troops" or "trounce the opposition" are about as meaningful as an eighties motivational poster, the idea that masculine metaphors are harmless has insidious consequences for women at work. The language of business is based on a model of success that rewards force and aggressiveness over empathy and inclusivity, and constructs talent as an attribute that's inherent and physical, immune from petty factors such as gender bias – such as the assumption that "men are ambitions and results-oriented" and "women are nurturing and communal" as Sandberg puts in her New York Times op-ed about office housework. This logic dictates that our inability to secure a promotion or the fact that we earn $298.10 less than our male colleagues each week is down to our personal weaknesses rather than the truth that it's difficult to succeed in a working culture whose very vocabulary sets you up to fail. "Search 'CEO' on Google Images and the first woman to appear after dozens of men is likely plastic. Barbie trumps even Yahoo's Marissa Mayer on the Internet's symbolic ranking of female success," writes Danielle Paquette in an April 2015 article in The Washington Post.
In her famous 1993 Nobel Peace lecture, the writer Toni Morrison used her trademark lyricism to explain why we should call out jargon when we see it and why it's important to tread carefully when choosing our words. "Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago," she said. In a world where it's hard enough to be recognised for our achievements, it's easy to overlook masculine metaphors and dated cliches. But if we accept the language of business the way that it is, then - just like Peggy - the words we come up against will keep stopping us in our tracks.