Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Men are from earth and women are from earth. Deal with it.

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.


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This entry was posted on 18/07/2012 by in Confidence for Speakers, Public speaking, Women speakers.

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