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Women, swearing and the workplace

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Mon September 12, 2011
Ousted Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz is known for her liberal use of profanity in the workplace.
Ousted Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz is known for her liberal use of profanity in the workplace.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Profanity, candor are trademarks of Carol Bartz's management style at Yahoo
  • "It stands out because it's not expected," professor says of her tendency to swear
  • Attention devoted to language reflects "double-bind" women face in corporate America
  • E-mail announcing she was "fired" via phone "brilliantly refreshing," author says

(CNN) -- It's not every day you read about one top-level executive asking another where his balls are. But in the end, former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz lived up to her reputation for "salty language" and candid management style.

Since Bartz's very public departure from Yahoo last week, her penchant for blunt, profane language has become recurring themes in discussions of her career, driving conversation about what women can and can't be in the workplace.

"It stands out because it's not expected," said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation."

"We always take notice of what's unexpected and women are still not expected to curse, so when they do, it's noticed more."

Bartz got the ball rolling when she called the board members that fired her a bunch of "doofuses" who "f----- me over" in her first public comments after the now infamous firing-by-phone. Those statements came two days after Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock called her on her cell phone last Tuesday to deliver the news. In response, she sent an e-mail to Yahoo's 14,000 colleagues telling them "I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's chairman of the board" and wishing them the best.

Since then, tales of her "characteristically salty language" and perceived abrasiveness have peppered the post-mortems on her two-year tenure, which many seem to agree ended due to her failure to boost revenue and lack of long-term vision. Even The Wall Street Journal published an amusing compilation of "Carol Bartz's Best Quotes," a testament to how her "crude honesty" and "blue language" became part of her brand.

"What do I look for when hiring? Well, let's get past the assumption that they can do the job. There has to be a no-a------ rule," she said in a 2010 interview with Esquire titled, "Hi, I'm Carol Bartz... Are You an A------?"

The attention devoted to Bartz's candor, profane or otherwise, reflects the double-bind faced by women in the business world, especially those in high positions, Tannen said.

"If women talk in ways expected of them or project a feminine demeanor, it's seen as weak. But if they talk in ways associated with men or bosses, then they're seen as too aggressive," she said. "Whatever they do violates one or the other expectation, either you're not talking as you should as a woman or as boss."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you believe women are treated differently than men, Tannen and others think that a dirty-mouthed man would not receive as much attention for his blue language as Bartz has.

"For people to call it 'salty language' shows how we're uncomfortable talking about women who swear. I don't think anyone would describe a rapper's language as being salty," said former Nickelodeon executive Anne Kreamer, whose book, "It's Always Personal: Emotions in the New Workplace," came out this year.

The fact that Bartz was known for swearing, crying and confrontations also reflects the tight-lipped, buttoned-up culture pervading corporate America, Kreamer said. In researching her book, "Emotions in the Workplace," Kreamer said she found that 60% of employees reported never seeing their bosses get angry or display any kind of unpleasant emotion.

"People are barely keeping it together, and that's why this becomes a conversation point because everyone wants to be able to publicly flip off the boss one way or another. But you swallow it because you don't want to lose your job," she said.

Not everyone considers swearing in the workplace appropriate, said Charles Conine, who runs Consilium, an employee and labor relations consulting service. But standards vary depending on whether the workplace is a corporate office in Silicon Valley or a battlefield in Afghanistan.

Yahoo isn't known for its culture of confrontation, which could be why Bartz's actions -- while at Yahoo and in her public flipping-off of its board -- still has power to shock the public, Kreamer said.

"We go through these Kabuki-like dances of ways to save face in corporate America," Kreamer said.

"The way she simply said, 'I've been fired' was brilliantly refreshing. She said it as blunt as she did because she was pissed off, and we rarely see that."

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