For the better part of history, ‘ladylike’ behaviour has involved not swearing in both the workplace and outside of it. Growing up, most children are schooled not to swear. But the boys at school always did and so do most men we work with. This is because there has been a swearing double standard. Women that swear face almost immediate backlash compared to their male colleagues, which has been proven by history time and again.
In 2001, for example, Dr. Robert O’Neill conducted a study investigating the gendered divide in how swearing is perceived. Participants were shown a written transcript of a conversation that included swearing. If they were told, the swearer was a woman, she was rated ‘weak’ or ‘repellent’. On the contrary, male swearers were viewed as strong and the swearing was entirely disregarded.
So, what is the discourse about women using profane language in the workplace?
The workplace can become one of the most stressful, nerve-wracking places at times making it impossible not to swear. A 2016 study revealed that British women swear more often than British men. These findings should not come as a surprise and women using profane language should not be something that is demonised. Rather, it should be normalised. Research has suggested that swearing impacts our brains and bodies almost entirely, it releases stress. Yet women feel hesitant swearing in a mixed-gender environment as opposed to in an all-female work environment.
Researchers concluded that using profane language in the workplace can work as a “valuable release valve” in stressful work environments. Swearing helps as a coping mechanism so even when employees are not satisfied with their working conditions they can release tension through swearing. Considering that both the male and female colleagues are faced with similar levels of stress and frustration; they should not face discrimination in the ways they choose to destress.
One of the reasons why women out-swear men is to reject the stereotypical gender roles and challenge the notion of ladylike behaviour. The stigma against women swearing is one that needs to be let go of already. Women should not be altered to their speech.
Is swearing at work harmful?
A study conducted by the BBC revealed that swearing at work can in fact increase the effectiveness and persuasiveness of an argument. Swearing enhances team productivity and cohesiveness fostering trust between different teams. For instance, in sales, swearing can result in more gains when both sides do it, to be more precise 18%.
Despite the studies proving different benefits of workplace profanity. There continues to remain a taboo around swearing in the workplace. The taboo is more closely related to women as it is still socially unacceptable for women to swear publicly. Therefore, they are less likely to do it compared to their male colleagues.
Does there need to be workplace profanity etiquette?
Different people have different opinions and tolerance for profanity. A vast majority of people swear at work and outside of it. If employees feel threatened or disrespected by the language, they should take it up with HR to resolve the matter. However, casual swearing that does not have a severe impact on employee relationships, customer-client relations, or business conditions at large must not result in harsh consequences or require HR intervention.
More importantly, swearing amongst female employees should not be treated as something otherworldly. Women do not need to face yet another glass ceiling at work. Employers need to avoid putting discriminatory policies in place that dictate women on their speech and mannerisms. Both male and female employees should be awarded the same freedoms at work.
Ayesha Mirza is a journalism intern at Yellow Eve. She is passionate about dismantling patriarchal structures and uplifting the voices of marginalised groups.