The power of language – what does sexy mean?

I knew this post was coming…someone who did not appreciate the views that were expressed in the outside circle session on the lack of women speakers at Pod Camp Boston. I knew it was coming because she posted earlier that “self hate is not sexy”. In her post about the circle she said:

Basically, I feel that by considering some aspect of who you are a hindrance to progress, you are committing self-hate, and really, that’s #notagoodlook.

So, a different viewpoint on that session. From first read, I’d say that this different viewpoint is from someone who has been fortunate enough not to have experienced what some of us have in our careers. I hope for her sake that she never does experience this wall, that she is able to get by on her self-confidence alone.

Problem is, that probably won’t happen. And because she refuses to acknowledge that there is a high statistical probability that people will marginalize her because of her gender and her race, she won’t recognize when it happens to her. And she won’t have the tools and skills to counteract those artificial barriers.

My colleague Dave blogged about this yesterday. He has a really good post about stereotyping. We all do it, its part of how we build our world view. The key in a global society is to recognize that our world view is not everyone’s world view. Figuring out how other cultures act and think is vital to building a truly connected world. And isn’t that what social media is all about?

I do think that the blogger brings up a good point. You can’t move forward if all you can see is the negative. Very true. Also, the comment about white boys being the minority now was ridiculous, and that should have been addressed. However, discounting the negative is also a zero sum game. It makes you an unintentional partner in that marginalization of the “other”. Just because you have been able to get by on your talent alone does not mean everyone else has been as fortunate.

Also, what is sexy? I never want to be considered sexy at work. It is a hindrance to me, just as my Southern accent is. I just want to be the smartest and most technical. I am the happiest at work when I can geek out and forget all about my gender. Fortunately that happens a lot where I am now. But the idea that speaking about hard issues or sharing stories about negative things we have experienced could be sexy or non-sexy just baffles me. What is sexy? What is attractive? As women, are we “supposed” to only be attractive or sexy?

For me, culturally women are the ones that do all the hard, dirty work. And I’m fortunate to be with a man who thinks a smart, techie, passionate, controversial woman is sexy.

How can we move this to neutral? Maybe we need to find a way to capture that self-confidence, while at the same time building networks so when the inevitable happens there are tools available to help.

I’m still thinking about the language part of this, because I am certain that word – sexy- means different things to women depending on their age, nationality, culture, professinal field, etc. How do we get to neutral if we use the same word but it means something different to all of us? And that’s just women, do men have different connotations for sexy? They must, they call software sexy and I will NEVER understand that.

One thing for sure, the conversation has to keep happening. That’s part of why The Working Mother Experience book was written at EMC, to open the conversation of what its like to be a working mother in a high stress high tech company. I don’t want to live in a flat world where we all see the same view. I want to be in a connected, messy world. One where I can learn from everyone’s point of view.

7 thoughts on “The power of language – what does sexy mean?

  1. To be fair, there’s no shortage of self-confidence, brash attitude, and controversial statements coming from 24 year-olds of any variety. There never has been. If it weren’t for them we’d probably never make progress.

    This 24 year-old was born into a world very different from the ones we were born into. It only makes sense that she’s playing by different rules and seeing through different lenses.

    When she does encounter an obstacle she doesn’t expect, she’ll handle it in a different way than we would.

    As for defining sexy, in product design I always took it to mean designed to appeal to the subconscious. An iPhone is sexy; a Blackberry is not. Software that makes you go “Whoa… I didn’t know you could do that,” is sexy. Microsoft Word is not.

    I can’t answer what your blogger thinks sexy means. But I can guess from context she’s talking about empowerment, about risk-taking, about living in the moment and not focusing on the past. It’s a strange word to co-opt but it gets your attention and I’m guessing that’s her intent.

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  3. Hi Gina,
    I’m not sure what the post has to do with the ‘power of language,’ except in the the broadest terms.

    Having read the post you referenced (and if I interpret the irreverent tone of the “Not so processed thoughts from the Girl Power Session at PCB4” post correctly) I have to agree with the previous commenter, that in this context, “sexy” is being used in the sense of “generally attractive, interesting, or glamourous” (M-W online) rather than in the gender-political sense, as in “self-hate isn’t attractive.”

    Or, indeed, interesting.

    In this sense then, I can certainly understand how software, music, food, ideas even can exhibit a certain ‘sexiness’ – sometimes this is referred to as a cognitive bias known as a “halo effect” – a phenomenon that has been empirically tested and validated.

    Out of curiosity, what factors would cause a lower number of female speakers to contribute at the event you refer to, in your view?

    Regards,
    Michael

  4. Thanks for your posts on this. I left that session feeling like you and I were shouting at the wind a bit; we seemed to be among the few there who were even willing to acknowledge that we live in a sexist culture. I think the prevailing attitude lately seems to be that just becuase it’s no longer the 1950s, that sexism is over and the onus for fixing this conference problem (and we all do seem to agree that it’s a problem) lies entirely with the women.

    The concept of privilege (in this case male privilege) is a thorny one to tackle. Especially considering the overwhelming refusal by most to even believe it exists. Posts like the ones you’ve written are brave, I applaud you!

    I also thank you for being the only blogger I’ve read so far to address the ugliness of the “what’s between your legs” comment. I have a LOT of respect for the guy who said it, and I don’t think he realized he was being offensive (and certainly not when most of the crowd burst into actual *applause* after he said it) when he said it, but boiling this issue down to a base statement like that is actually part of the problem–no matter the intentions behind it.

    Thanks for your thoughts, reading all the fallout from that session has been fascinating!

  5. Dave are you telling me sexy is an actual tech term too?

    Rakiesha your posts are great. I think we are missing each other’s meanings. My hope in writing was to open dialogue, and reinforce the idea that not all women have the same experience. I’m so happy that in spite of our seemingly similar backgrounds, you have not had to face the barriers I’ve encountered.

    Mike thanks for the mention of “halo effect”, I had never heard of that term. Don’t you think language reinforces the halo effect? Isn’t cognition shaped by social experiences, and therefore words? (I’m wondering this because I always think backwards from the lack of social awareness because of my experiences with autism). Fascinating subject, wish I had more than a week before classes start again.

    Sarah, I think the “between your legs” statement was said in all sincerity and honesty too. That’s really why I felt impelled to call it out – someone who obviously wants to make a difference is using words that will actually put up barriers to communicating with certain groups. We’ll never move forward if that is the case.

    Language is so powerful. Maybe I’ll write a post on that after I read more on halo effects…

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