Women, Language and Power

Women, Language and Power

The Tricky Business of Talking Our Way to the Top

Susannah Baldwin, Executive Communications Coach

Men run the majority of our corporations. Therefore the norms for speaking and behaving in corporate groups are masculine. Women’s social behaviors and conversational styles are very different from men’s. Women are socialized to communicate in specific ways that can render them ineffective in environments that value masculine styles – particularly at the leadership level. This leaves women ill-prepared to compete with men who have a natural affinity with the communication styles pervasive in their organization.

To start, women are taught from a very early age to contain themselves physically – told explicitly not take up space in how they position their bodies or how loud or long they speak. Women work to minimize their physical space. The same is true for their volume level and length of time they speak. Being “loud” or taking up too much time can be seen as unfeminine. This aspect of women’s social training forms the basis of the complaint that women aren’t “visible” enough and don’t have sufficient “presence” in order to be seen as a leader.

Second, based on research common adjectives most often used to describe femininity are nurturing, sympathetic, and yielding – all attributes that describe a woman in relation to others, not inherent characteristics just about her. Many of the terms we associate with femininity don’t include the characteristics we culturally use to define leadership – assertive, decisive, independent, and competitive. Essentially women are taught to be considerate of others and their feelings. This puts women in a bind when it comes to choosing themselves and their needs or desires over others. It makes it hard to self promote when that would mean others would lose out. This can take place in many ways – women letting someone talk over them in a meeting, take credit for work their work, or be the main presenter on a co-lead presentation to senior leaders. Often women will accept being held back for a promotion while others are moved ahead. Or, they accept more work with no additional pay or title change. Women often don’t ask for, let alone demand what they want or deserve.

The attributes women are hesitant to exhibit are what make men successful in corporate relationships and politics.

Last, if we are going to talk about leadership we have to talk about the skill of communication and conversational style. According to Deborah Tannen, a renowned linguist says – “conversational styles” or the way we speak to each other, are learned growing up.

We learn, practice, and reinforce our gender group’s style of speaking in same sex playgroups. The goal of a girl’s style is create intimacy, and inclusion while downplaying the dominance or authority of any one girl. They want individuals to feel good about being a part of the group. As a result their style of speaking is polite, non-threatening, inclusive and non-authoritative.

The goal of boy’s conversational style is to construct a hierarchy in the group, determining who is on top and has the right to tell others in the group what to do. Their style is authoritative, assertive, and hierarchical, in service of wanting to establish them as “on top.” Boys often use banter, joking, put downs, barbs as part of jockeying for position in a group.

People in powerful positions are likely to reward styles similar to their own. And this includes linguistic styles. So here is the problem, when women come into a male dominated business and use a conversational style that is feminine it can limit their success. The use of a collaborative style is seen as most valuable in management positions. At the leadership level the more masculine style is dominant and if women cannot adapt they find themselves talked over, pushed aside, and perceived as good executors but not leaders.

As a result women must be intentional about the language they use, in certain circumstances, if they want to signal that they are confident, decisive, and authoritative, and want to be taken seriously. Women who can adapt their language are more successful at work by balancing the language of both masculine and feminine conversational styles.


Women, Language and PowerAbout the Author: Susannah Baldwin is an executive communications coach with a doctorate in clinical psychology – a dynamic combination that she uses to help clients lead and communicate more effectively. She has 20 years of experience in the field with a large part of her work in Hi Tech and Biotech companies.

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