Mayim Bialik On Her Viral Video And Why What We Call Women At Work Matters
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Mayim Bialik, the actress known for her role in the Big Bang Theory, recently released a video sharing her thoughts on why women should not be referred to as "girls." The video went viral with over 9 million views, sparking debate about the importance of language in shaping unconscious bias.
“This is something that has literally bothered me since I was 18 years old, when I realized that once women mature they are still (referred to as) girls in a lot of the vernacular we use. Sometimes it is completely harmless and sometimes it is not,” says Bialik.
Bialik, who also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, outlines in her book Girling Up, the importance of culture, gender and stereotypes in shaping confidence in young women. She says that language plays a key role in this. “I am very dismayed by the way girls are represented and the conscious and unconscious assumptions we make about girl’s competence and their ability to achieve,” she says.
In this interview, Bialik shares her views on how language reinforces stereotypes, often excluding women at work and how each of us can overcome this by having courageous conversations.
Michelle King: What we call women really matters in work context, what is your experience with this?
Mayim Bialik: I experience it in my workplace. There are so many other facets to this. To me the most disturbing set of comments I have gotten is from women who say ‘don’t you have better things to think about?’ That is how deeply ingrained this is. That we have even been taught that language doesn’t matter or that women or men who kick up a fuss about this are trouble makers. It is all that kind of rhetoric that feeds right into how the patriarchy has structured it. Sometimes you don’t know you are down until you are up.
King: Do you think language shapes how we view women at work?
Bialik: Language shapes how we frame things in our brain and how we behave. In terms of the workplace, it is very complicated because I worked in academia, as a minority, as a women, in the sciences and that was profoundly disturbing in many ways. The way that males, in particular, speak about female professors and female students, would shock (I think) a lot of people.
The notion that women are still competing to be seen as real competitors in an academic workplace by not having children, for example which is seen as the ideal if you really want to act like a man. Or the denigration of women who choose to embrace the opportunity to have children, if that is what they want to be do. I was literally trained in academic environment that ‘you can’t win.’
As an actor, it is much more complicated because a lot of the value of women is solely based on how we look. It doesn’t even matter if you are more talented than someone. If they look better than you for a part they will get it. That doesn’t even make sense. For the industry I work in, this is completely nonsensical.
King: Why do you think the words we use really matter at work?
Bialik: People don’t want language to matter when everything is fine. When someone points out that things are not fine, that is when it becomes uncomfortable in a workplace. It is when one person is either sensitive or feels undercut or undermined that then everyone has to analyze everything.
A lot of people say this is a lot of fuss for nothing. Everything is fine. Everything was fine. But the fact it is, statistically speaking it is not looking good for how we frame our minds around women – particularly in the workplace. It is something we have to talk about we cannot assume that everyone is going to catch up to our notion of equality just because we want them to.
King: Any advice for speaking up in the workplace?
Bialik: People need to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. We are looking for easy fixes and easy solutions. Women smiling and shutting up, but that is not going to be productive. If we don’t fix a problem, it keeps coming back. We have to properly address things to get through the discomfort.
The notion that there is some easy fix to this, especially in the workplace, is simply not true. It is up to all of us to start having these conversations.