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Examining Word Choice And Inclusivity In Corporate Conversations

By Beth O’Brien
A report on gender and work caught my attention recently, in particular, the section on workplace and especially boardroom diversity. When one in 10 women hold leadership positions at their company, nearly half of men see this as diverse. Significantly, a third of women agree. I found this incredibly eye-opening. One out of 10 is just not diverse. What is it that still makes us think business is a man’s world?

Real estate and real estate finance companies seem to me to have even lower female representation on their boards than average. This is despite the fact that a recent report (paywall) by Wells Fargo found that boards of real estate investment trusts (REITs) with above-average female representation (meaning, more than the average 15.5% female leadership) outperformed those REITs with average or below-average representation over the past decade.

Have we trained our perceptions to reinforce bias, despite the facts? It appears we have, if we are excited about 10-15% female representation as gender diversity.

This finding got me to thinking about my daily work life and whether I was guilty of going along with the crowd on not calling out exclusionary behavior. Was I perceiving as normal things that shouldn’t be? Was I complicit in the gender bias? Racial bias? Was there anything I could do differently as a business leader, as a mother and as a person? In some ways, I thought I had trained myself not to see gender, but maybe I had trained myself not to see gender bias.

I recently got a call from a banker covering me at a top-tier bank to talk about the “big boy” letter I might need for an upcoming transaction. These letters are basically affirmations from the investor that they are sophisticated and know the risks. Ouch — must we still call sophisticated investors “big boys”? It stung even though he didn’t know he said it.

It got me thinking about the “bad boy” carve-outs in our loan documents, which I painstakingly removed from all of our disclosure documents and replaced with “bad acts” carve-outs. Why would springing recourse provisions ever have been tied to the term “bad boys”? Certainly intentional actions can be made by male or female real estate investors.

Did anyone notice my edit? No matter what I did, the female partner at the law firm kept using the bad boy terminology. And last week, a different banker assured me their “Chinese Wall” was very much intact and I needn’t worry about a potential conflict of interest on our new warehouse line. Why can’t we all just call it a “compliance wall”?

But none of these terms get under my skin like the cringe-worthy expression “open the kimono,” which I am bombarded with at least once a month from some well-meaning individual trying to let me in on his deepest thoughts. I am all about transparency, but I just can’t unsee those hypothetical visuals on the conference calls. Please just let me under the tent instead — unless there is cultural misappropriation in that term too.

These expressions are so ingrained in finance speak that most people I interact with in real estate dealings don’t even seem to notice them. Particularly in the world of real estate finance, which has been so male-dominated for so long, the language usage is taken for granted. In fact, I’ve trained myself not to notice or care — but I think it is time for untraining.

Instead of going with the flow and maintaining the status quo, how about we start to notice and we replace words that demean with expressions that work? There is always a real-world way to say something that does not include gender or race. Instead of using the outdated lexicon that many view as “terms of art,” we can create a new normal. Let’s think about the business cliches we use and retire the sexist and racist terms. Maybe the office will feel a little more inclusive. I think we’d all prefer to work in that office.

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