The word is out: How you say things and--don't say them--is important

Working women

February 24, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Words shape our reality, language experts say, so it's important to pay attention to phraseology and favorite sayings -- especially if you're an employed woman who wants to be politically correct or "p.c."

And everyone knows "p.c." really stands for "polite and caring."

Let's start right out with "employed women" or "women at work," the proper and economically acceptable ways to describe women in the paid labor market.

"Working women," also used to describe employed persons who are not men, is OK but not entirely politically correct. When applied solely to the workplace, it suggests that homemakers -- not "housewives," since they are not married to their houses, even if it may appear they are at the end of each day -- don't do real work because they don't get paid a salary.

Anyone who is a full-time homemaker works very hard, as we all know. If she can get through the supermarket on any given day without crying, she should be awarded a master of business administration and declared qualified to run any business in the country.

She should be treated with the utmost respect, even though our very own government categorizes her as "unemployed" simply because she's not on anyone's payroll.

There's an international network called Wages for Housework that's working on this problem, so it soon may be moot -- once the network is successful in implementing its agenda of having the government or the employer of the homemaker's spouse, who indirectly benefits from the homemaker's labor, pay the worker who takes care of the home and family.

So, the new p.c. term that's being used for the 58 million women in the paid-labor market is "hard-working employed women."

Other terms and usages:

* "Upward mobility": In a slow economy, this expression must be used cautiously because there's no place to go.

For employed women, the term has taken on new coloration: Where once it meant the opportunity to go straight to the top of any corporation, today "upward mobility" means being able to get up in the morning and go to work, despite all the extra work you have to do once you get there, the long hours without overtime and the freeze on hiring and salary -- but not on bonuses.

The p.c. term replacing "upward mobility" is "running in place."

* "Affirmative action": This term, which describes the legal obligation companies have to hire and promote women and minorities under the U.S. Civil Rights Act, even if the executive branch of the federal government is opposed to it, is going out of style -- despite the fact most women and minorities owe their jobs to it.

Instead of "affirmative action," a popular descriptive being used these days is "cultural diversity," which refers to the way the workplace will look in the 1990s, when white men will make up only 15 percent of new hires. The coming shortage of skilled labor will make popular, at last, job candidates who are women, minorities, immigrants, disabled, older or retired.

The new p.c. expression that includes "affirmative action" and "cultural diversity" is "affirmative diversity."

* "Equal pay": This is a phrase that describes the legal obligation of employers to pay people doing the same job the same pay, regardless of gender. "Comparable worth," or "pay equity," neither of which is the law of the land, refers to the concept that the skills required for a job and its responsibilities should determine salaries, not gender.

Proponents of "pay equity" want to bridge the salary gap between women and men in different jobs. They want to raise the pay of women in female-dominated professions, such as nursing, teaching, cosmetology and secretarial and clerical work.

Despite years of efforts in this regard, full-time employed women average only 70 percent of the salary earned by men who work full time outside the home. And female college graduates still earn less than the average male high school dropout.

Obviously, a new p.c. term is needed. And it does exist: The way to describe the pervasive wage gap between women and men is "up the down salary." This not only describes the situation and offers a solution, it also gives vent to frustration from always being on the short end of the wage scale.

* "Maternity leave": Absence from work after you have a baby also is called "disability leave" and runs for six weeks with pay. After that, you're on unpaid leave with no federally mandated job guarantee, benefits or seniority protection. The United States and South Africa are the only developed countries that do not offer family leave.

"Maternity leave" is obsolete, and the new p.c. is "consumer manufacturing."

The new phrase alerts business to the fact that millions of American women are employed -- and, if employers want customers for their products, they'd better let their workers have time off for babies.

Even though the name of the magazine "Working Woman" is no longer p.c., the publication serves its readership well in the area of verbal gymnastics. A recent issue cites terminology that will be popular in the 1990s, replacing antiquated terms from the '80s.

Instead of "boasting how much work you have," employed women in the coming decade will "complain about how much work you have," the magazine reports.

Instead of having as a personal goal becoming a "CEO," women will seek "balance."

And the most important new phraseology of all:

Instead of saying, as an excuse for missing work, "The shuttle was delayed," Working Woman magazine predicts that women at work in the '90s will feel free to tell the truth: "My baby sitter got sick."

And it will be perfectly p.c.

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