Cady Herron. Miranda Priestly. What's her name, that new British woman on The Office. As one linguist explained to Fast Company's Drake Baer, you can—and should—be comfortable calling women like them (fictional or not), a-holes. That, anyway, is the part that stood out to us from Fast Company's Q&A with Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at U.C. Berkeley who's been studying the rise of the A-word's popularity.
It's a good read in contrast to the rise of Steve Jobs and all those not-so-nice words that have been said about his managerial style. It's also slightly frightening for those who haven't hit the point in our careers where we can be jerks, since Nunberg notes that there's a trend of bosses using Jobs' brand of jerkiness to justify not treating their underlings like human beings. But, like we said, what struck us about the interview is the gender dynamics of the a-word, and Nunberg's explanation to Baer:
Something we've skirted around is gender. You've used the masculine pronoun every time to refer to an asshole in our conversation, can you investigate that?
Most assholes are men. And the reasons most assholes are men, there are three of them.
Most people in the positions of power that assholes are apt to abuse are men. If 90 percent of all bosses are men, and 20 percent of all bosses are assholes, you do the math. But in the second place, I think men are more likely than women--though there are powerful exceptions--to confuse their role with their sense of self, to confuse the power that's given them in virtue in the organizational role with the entitlement they have to deal with other people. As I say in this book, if you hear someone say "Do you know who I am?", it's a pretty good bet he doesn't know either--something much more likely to come from a man than a woman.
There's a third reason here, and that's that we don't really give women credit for being assholes as much as we should. Very often when a woman does something that would earn a man the epithet "asshole" gets called a "bitch" instead, when really it has nothing to do with some primordial feminine malignity, it just has to do with the fact that this person is an asshole.
A person remonstrating with the gate agent because he or she wasn't given an upgrade-- "do you know how much money my company spends at your airline!"--if that was a man you would say "what an asshole." If it's a woman, you should also say, "what an asshole!" but you are more apt to say "what a bitch!" as if it has something to do with her being a woman.
Gender equity demands that we call women assholes more than we do.
Read the whole interview at Fast Company.