Inspirational Women – Dr Judith Baxter

You may well have heard Dr Baxter this summer as she was featured on BBC’s Woman’s Hour talking about her latest research on women in the boardroom. Enjoy this interview with her and be inspired!

Dr Judith Baxter is senior lecturer of Applied Linguistics at Aston University and has a very impressive array of publications and books to her credit. She recently published some research into how women’s language styles impact on boardroom behaviours, a topic very close to my heart! I’m so pleased we got this opportunity to talk with her.

Jane: Judith, thank you so very much for making the time to talk with changing people readers, it’s much appreciated. Your latest piece of research made a stir nationally (it was featured here on the blog too) and was picked up by several media outlets. We obviously only got edited highlights in the press so could you tell us a little more about what prompted the project?
Judith: My interest goes back some way! A few years ago, I was working in a FTSE 100 company as a consultant and I couldn’t help but notice that all the senior managers I encountered were male.

As an applied linguist, I wanted to know why there was a lack of senior women on senior management boards, and wondered if the use of language might help to explain this. Was there something about the way leaders use language that might hinder senior women? Research has explored the topic from many perspectives – historical, sociological, educational and psychological – but I wasn’t aware of any research on the language of leadership, so I wanted to fill the obvious gap!

The (very simplified) conclusions of that research were that women’s style of talking in board rooms led to a loss of their authority. How do you think women can mitigate the effects of that?
Well, that is a very simplified version of my findings. My principal finding is that senior women use a type of leadership language that I call ‘double-voiced discourse’ (DvD) more than senior men. DvD involves anticipating the hidden agendas and concerns of your colleagues and adjusting what you say in light of this. It is used to predict and dilute potential conflict with colleagues especially in difficult or challenging contexts. It seems to be particularly prominent where women are outnumbered on Boards.

The media picked up on the ‘weak’ form of DvD, which can make women sound apologetic or defensive and therefore lose authority with their teams or colleagues. For example, I have heard senior women frame a comment by saying:

I’m sure you’ve thought of this before but I think that…’, and ‘this must sound perfectly obvious to you but...’ and ‘at the risk of sounding assertive’, and even ‘I will shut up, I’ve been speaking too much’.

It is difficult for women to change this because such self-corrective devices are learnt over time from girlhood in order to handle conflict with others in acceptable and non-threatening ways.

The first step towards mitigating such effects is to notice when other people use DvD, or better still to notice when you use it yourself. Ask whether self-deprecating phrases are actually helpful or needed within a given context, or whether they just make you sound uncertain and tentative. Once you have developed a level of awareness of the language you use, you can start to adjust it by removing the more tentative phrases. Perhaps note how senior women or men you consider as role models use speech when they sound particularly assured.

However, my findings also show that there is a ‘strong’ version of DvD which helps senior women to be highly effective as leaders in male-populated contexts. Strong DvD enables women to adjust and adapt what they have to say to achieve their own agenda but also to preserve alliances with colleagues. For example, a senior woman succeeded in getting her team to accept a tough decision by asking them to step into her shoes and visualise the issue from her point of view. She said, ‘See my problem is that if I have to go to the Board and ask for another million pounds, then the consequence will be…..’.

In another example of a meeting, a woman said to a male colleague who hadn’t spoken but was looking agitated, ‘I can tell you want to say something, Simon, please share your views’. These examples showed a heightened ability to predict colleagues’ concerns and respond to them while remaining clearly in authority.

How far do you still think women need to adopt male ways of behaving to progress at work?
I see so-called male ways of behaving as part of the ‘strong’ version of DvD. The ability to speak assertively is a vital part of effective leadership communication for both women and men. The knack is to judge when it is necessary to speak assertively and when it would be wiser to use an alternative strategy. So a woman leader I observed who judged she wasn’t being taken seriously about her decision on a controversial issue suddenly did a ‘role-break’ by saying ‘come on guys, give me a break will you, we’re getting f*****g nowhere with this.’ People sat up and listened.

The use of role-breaking out of the conversational frame in order to speak assertively if required can be a very effective strategy alongside more conciliatory approaches.

When you were at school did you imagine having the academic life you now have? What were your aspirations then?
I felt I was given a very limited set of options as I was sent to an academic, all-girls grammar school which expected the most able pupils to go to university and then on to teach, and those who were viewed as less able to go to a teacher training college. That was the choice: teach, or if you were a really hopeless case, go into nursing!

I do wish I had been given some careers advice about entering the business world; I didn’t even consider it and yet it might have suited me better than the academic world, who knows! Today, I am the first to suggest the business world as a career to our English graduates as I think they have many of the right aptitudes: criticality, excellent communication and social skills, creativity. However, I do love being an academic; it gives a certain freedom.

Have you had a role model in your career? Or someone who has supported and encouraged you?
I would like to say my mother but it isn’t true, much as I love her. If there is a female role model, it would be the Vice Chancellor at Aston, Professor Julia King, who is one of the few VCs in the UK, despite the predominance of women at middle management level in academia. She has championed the cause of women leaders by appointed two pro-Vice Chancellors who are women, and two (out of five) Deans who are women. This is almost unheard of in British academia!

She also has the personal touch. She knows about my work and encourages me by sending me details of conferences, interesting articles and contacts for my research. My research has even been discussed on the Executive Committee and Council, always good for the ego!

Which person in the public eye do you most admire and why?
I think Helen Morrissey is very inspiring. From what I read, it really is a case of ‘I don’t know how she does it’. She meets all the superwoman criteria of running her own business, being paid a super-sized salary, having dozens of children, sustaining happy family relationships, looking slim and glamorous, and alongside all that, she seems a really decent person who says down-to-earth things about women, the work-life balance and leadership.

I hesitate to say this, but I also think the pop star Madonna has been a source of inspiration. I doubt that she’s a particularly nice person or that she is good at social relationships which I usually think is essential. But she has an extraordinary drive and sense of self-discipline which has allowed her to achieve against the odds and to display an amazing range of talent. I think young women could learn from her.

Do you think your research applies to women in academia as well as in business?
Indeed I do. This could be a long discussion so suffice to say the same pressures exist in academia as they do in the business world for men to succeed at the expense of women. It was in a University Senate meeting that I heard a senior woman who had only spoken twice say ‘I’m talking too much, I’m talking too much’.

There has been much talk of late about quotas for women in the boardroom. It’s something I have come to believe has to happen to change attitudes, albeit a conclusion I’ve come to with reluctance. What are your thoughts on quotas?
Yes I would agree too, because it is a necessary counter force to systemic pressures to promote men at the expense of women. I believe that if we can move towards a gender balance in the boardroom, the gap between a male and a female style of speech would disappear. Both men and women would use a broader range of linguistic strategies akin to the strong version of DvD.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I used to be very nervous about giving talks, even though I was a teacher in my early days. I still get nervous but in a good way. I was given this advice. If you have to give a talk, a speech or a presentation to a room full of strangers who you know nothing about, act as if you know them. Look them in the eye, take them in, speak as you would normally speak to a group of people you do know, don’t prepare jokes and the natural rapport will emerge.

What advice would you give a young woman with her sights set on the boardroom?
My advice would be to learn to use the strong form of DvD to your advantage! What this means in practice is learning that language is a powerful resource to achieve your own ambitions while preserving alliances with team members and colleagues who matter. It is a case of judging when to use humour, politeness, authority, role-breaking tactics, scenario setting, visualising and other DvD strategies to their best effect. Yes it can be quite manipulative, but always in a good way, as you are using it to manage people to bring the best out of them, while making a powerful impact on others.

How do you relax and unwind?
Hmmm. There isn’t much time for that as I commute from home in Hampshire to Aston University in Birmingham. I used to ride and own horses when my daughters were younger, but now I enjoy simple walks in the country at weekends with my husband and dog! I also love going to the theatre, high brow and low brow. I have seen Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well  and the Wizard of Oz in London recently.

If you could choose an alternative career, anything at all, what would it be and why?
Almost certainly a theatre director. When I was younger, I directed a number of plays in schools and colleges and it was magical. I can but dream!

I’d love to see what would have happened if you’d put your talents to use in the theatre world! I suspect more older talented women actors might be around… Judith, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, it’s a fascinating topic.

If you’d like to see find out a bit more about Dr Baxter her University link is here and she has a blog called Leadership Talk which makes reference to her project. This link will take you to her book page on Amazon.

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Posted on September 8th, 2011 by

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