When you hear that gossip about a “crazy” colleague who is “difficult to work with,” consider the source, especially if the target is a woman. These planted rumors could be based on personal animus more than objective facts, as actress Natalie Portman recently argued.
In her acceptance speech as an honoree at Variety’s Power of Women Event last week, Portman spoke in support of the Time’s Up movement and advised the audience to stop believing gossip without questioning why a person is being called crazy in the first place.
“Stop the rhetoric that a woman is crazy or difficult,” Portman said. “If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him, ‘What bad thing did you do to her?’ That’s a code word. He is trying to discredit her reputation.”
Natalie Portman gives a step by step guide on how to help women. Step 5: "Gossip well. Stop the rhetoric that a woman is crazy or difficult. If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him: what bad thing did you do to her?" #PowerOfWomen https://t.co/1PJ3dEgBuu pic.twitter.com/1mX6EAHYZN
— Variety (@Variety) October 12, 2018
How gossip is used to undermine women’s reputations
Portman’s pointed advice on how gossip can be wielded as a weapon against women resonated, drawing immediate cheers from the audience. Words like”crazy” have a long history of being used to undermine women’s professional experiences. Writer Emma Carmichael even wrote a long list of coded words of “female disparagement” that get deployed in the workplace. When a male coworker has a personal grudge, “Difficult to work with” can be code for “Sometimes expresses herself without regard for the self-esteem of her male interlocutors,” she writes. “Big personality” becomes code for “Frankly, a little too loud for your liking.”
— Emma Carmichael (@emmacargo) February 6, 2018
These are not just verbal insults you can bounce back from and ignore; the dissemination of gossip can ruin careers. Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly used his influence to intimidate women into silence and to derail the careers of his sexual assault victims. Director Peter Jackson admitted that he blacklisted Weinstein accusers Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino in response to a “smear campaign” by the producer.
“From 1992, I didn’t work again until 1995,” Annabella Sciorra, one of Weinstein’s accusers, told the New Yorker about how Weinstein ruined her professional reputation. “I just kept getting this pushback of ‘We heard you were difficult; we heard this or that.’ I think that that was the Harvey machine.”
When professionals call a colleague “crazy,” they are painting an ugly picture of an unstable colleague. The victim becomes too emotional to be believed. It turns the critique personal. To put workplace conversation back on track and to make workplaces a safer, inclusive place for everyone, employees need to eliminate this language from their vocabulary.