Why Can’t Women Speak Their Minds in Boardrooms?

Women need to speak up, so says Dr Judith Baxter, an expert in linguistics. Dr Baxter has undertaken a survey in seven major companies, including two in the FTSE-100 as part of an Economic and Social Research Council research project entitled ‘Leadership Talk and Gender in Senior Management Business Meetings in the UK’. A key contention of that project was that women are under represented in leadership roles because, simply put, men and women talk differently. Or less simply put:

One key area we examine is why female leaders continue to be significantly under-represented in the workplace. A 2009 survey commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) shows that only 12% of FTSE 100 directors in the UK are women (Sealy, Doldor and   Vinnicombe, 2009). While there are many reasons why this occurs – legal, economic and sociological – we contend that one possible reason for the lack of female leaders in the business world is socio-linguistic. That is, women may simply have a harder job than men to be effective through their talk: to be listened to, included in key decisions, taken seriously, and to influence the views of others effectively.

Hear hear! The research actually found that women were FOUR times more likely than men to be self deprecating, use humour and speak indirectly or apologetically when tackling difficult subjects with board members to avoid conflict. Baxter said she had heard one woman director, who had spoken only twice in a meeting, say:

“Sorry, sorry, I’m talking too much, I’m talking too much.”

Dr Baxter believes women use such language because they’re often heavily outnumbered on boards and so use a linguistic ‘second guessing’. I’ve written about this use of apologetic language before in Career Tips for Women but I am surprised to find it prevalent among women in senior posts. Examples include “Sorry to cut across you like that but…” and “I’m probably speaking out of turn, but…” (And previous research shows that both men and women think women talk most in meetings, when researchers have observed that men have talked the most).

Women Talk Differently

This type of language Dr Baxter calls double voice discourse or DVD. It’s the language she observed women using when facing criticism or handling conflict. She acknowledges that there are times when this could be appropriate, or used as a manipulative tool, but notes that this type of language use makes senior women appear weak and defensive.  They appear not to be in control and thus less authoritative.

Men were more comfortable with handling conflict, were more direct and didn’t take it personally; not so we women! Women in the survey avoided being confrontational and used a range of strategies to preserve their alliances. There were few differences in the actual language used, she noted, and Dr Baxter did not attribute this strategy to innate altruism in women, on the contrary- “They are doing it to achieve their own agenda“. It’s not a particularly successful strategy, yet it’s one we women use when outnumbered by men.

So it looks like we need to toughen up, to learn to speak our minds clearly and without fear. Being direct is the language men understand and if we want to get ahead we need to at least understand the language of male and plan our strategy accordingly!

Look out for an upcoming interview with Dr Baxter when we’ll hopefully learn more about this research, and importantly strategies for overcoming it! And women, do share how you feel about confrontational situations at work? Do you conform to this findings of this research? Do you recognise some of this either in yourself or colleagues?

If this topic is one close to your heart, come and join me for my brand new course in November 2011, at Bath’s Royal Crescent Hotel. Speak Up, get that seat on the board and be heard!

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Posted on June 22nd, 2011 by

4 Responses to “Why Can’t Women Speak Their Minds in Boardrooms?”

  1. […] author of the research, Dr Judith Baxter calls the way women speak a kind of linguistic second guessing. They avoided any direct […]

  2. […] author of the research, Dr Judith Baxter calls the way women speak a kind of linguistic second guessing. They avoided any direct […]

  3. […] author of the research, Dr Judith Baxter calls the way women speak a kind of linguistic second guessing. They avoided any direct […]

  4. […] true. 2009 EHRC study concluded that one of the reasons so few FTSE directors are women, is because women are not adequately listened to or taken seriously by men to be able to progress to these positions. Recent campaign Project 28-40 studied the reasons why […]

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