Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
I was asked a good question at a teachers’ workshop recently. How can we prepare young women for the – let’s call them ‘robust’ interactions awaiting them when they hit the world of work. It resonated. Just a few weeks ago a young woman sought my advice after being patronised at a job interview. The issue in both cases was the same. How do we equip young women to deal with it when they meet discrimination, sexism or downright misogyny in the workplace?
It is disappointing to be discussing this after forty years of feminism, but ingrained ways are hard to shake, and cultural change takes time (as Julia Gillard or Hillary Clinton would be able to tell you).
All of us have different styles of communicating. It’s part of who we are, where we come from, our education and socio-economic background – but also, according to some people, whether we’re male or female. Georgetown University’s linguistics professor Deborah Tannen has research which suggests that men and women use speech differently. Gender based styles have been called “debate vs. relate”, “report vs. rapport, or “competitive vs. cooperative”. The idea is that women talk to connect, men to establish their status. Women talk to strengthen bonds. Men to assert their independence.
These traits have been used to explain the glass ceiling. They’re said to make it more difficult for women to succeed at work. They are used as proof of female unsuitability for power. We are thought to be less likely to speak out, and therefore easier to ignore. More likely to be modest, and therefore not get promoted, more likely avoid confrontation, and therefore not up to ‘the tough stuff’. Women are also thought to downplay their own abilities in order to maintain social bonds: “If I’m better than you, that’s not going to make you like me more.”
Intuitively this may ring true. But Oxford University linguist Deborah Cameron says flatly it’s a myth. It’s just playing to a stereotype we all recognise – about as sophisticated and verifiable as ‘Men are from Mars and Women from Venus’.
Cameron says communication styles depend on who you’re studying and what the context is. For example, blue collar female forewomen are very assertive, even over men. On this basis, if gender-based communication styles do exist, they probably arise from the long standing social division of roles between the sexes: men going out into the world for breadwinning, profit making and governing; women staying home to tend the hearth and the family. As one scholar says, “history has many themes, one of them is that women should be quiet”. It’s this that we have to address.
It’s only tradition that gave women their voice in the domestic sphere. All we’ve done is develop a communication style that works in context. When men criticise and label you as ‘unsuitable’, you need to see through it. They are holding on to the status quo and trying to secure their own position in the Big Wide World.
No-one, male or female, wants their head shot off, or to be disregarded, overlooked or ignored. The problem for women is that men are used to doing these sorts of things to others in a way women do not. Unsuspecting women find themselves under attack from weapons they do not recognise and cannot use. A young woman goes for a job and is shocked to have her resume sneered at. A new female manager is talked over by her male colleagues. The job seeker doesn’t see that in some weird way a 22 year old blonde is a threat and the boss asserts his status by squashing her. The new manager doesn’t see that her presence is denied because her male co-workers want her excluded from their power cirlce.
It takes nerve and courage to push through this kind of treatment. If you do there will be a backlash. There’s the ‘you’re not meant to be here’ syndrome. Countless female pioneers have talked about it, and women in male dominated workplaces still talk about it. A woman in engineering or IT can still feel pretty uncomfortable.
I have not been able to come up with a good answer to the question from the workshop. Given time and persistence I think men will learn to accommodate women at work, and women will develop the skills they need to make their way. What young women need as they start out is awareness of the mythology, and to have backup, support, mentoring and a chance to practice the unfamiliar.
Girls need to know that ‘aggressive’ does not equal ‘smart’. If anyone, male or female, is mean to you at work, you are probably upsetting someone who feels threatened and doesn’t know how to deal with it. Secondly, men who behave in an intimidating way will not cease if you allow yourself to be intimidated. Learn to recognise behaviour that’s out of line and call it. Draw the job interview to a close, challenge the colleagues to let you speak. Tolerate the fact that they won’t like you for it.
I have a fervent belief in the importance of encouraging girls to present, speak in public and debate. It builds confidence, trains thought processes and teaches them how to handle the unexpected. It develops leadership skills, and is an excellent way to get noticed. If girls can speak in a co-ed environment they may experience the ‘shoot ’em down’ tactics some males use so well, and be better prepared for future encounters.
Of course there’s another side. Boys need to be taught that rugby is not a roadmap for life, that girls are as good as they are, that empathy, listening, courtesy and consideration are tools everyone needs to be able to use.
I would welcome readers’ views on this issue. Meantime….as someone once said, men are from earth and women are from earth. Deal with it.