Women, including those who work in senior positions for some of Britain’s leading firms, are held back from reaching the very highest levels in business because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high-pressure meetings.
The claim is made by linguistics expert Judith Baxter, who undertook an 18-month study into the speaking patterns of men and women at meetings in seven major companies, including two in the FTSE-100 Index.
The research found that women were four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humor and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members to avoid conflict. And it doesn’t always work.
Baxter said such language was used because women were often heavily outnumbered on boards. As a result, senior women engage in a kind of linguistic second-guessing, adjusting their language to make the right impact on colleagues.
Examples included using phrases such as: “I am probably speaking out of turn, but ...” and “Sorry to cut across you like that, but...”
When employed effectively, this kind of language could be a useful tool to manipulate those around them, she said, but self-deprecation and an apologetic style were risky because striking a wrong note could lead to appearing defensive and weak.
Baxter, a lecturer in applied linguistics at Aston University, said women were left open to accusations that they were not fully in control of their arguments, which could lead to a loss of authority: “They have to work really hard to hit the right note with their colleagues.”
Baxter said she 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.”
According to the annual Female FTSE Board report from Cranfield University School of Management, the proportion of women on the boards of FTSE-100 companies is only 12.5 percent.
“I found very few differences between male and female leadership language, but there was this one key difference, which I call double-voice discourse [DvD]. Women use this when they are facing criticism or handling conflict. While men tend to be direct and straight talking, and if they are confrontational it is regarded as nothing personal, women avoid being directly confrontational and use a range of strategies to preserve a range of alliances, if not friendships. I am not saying that women are more sharing and caring than men. I am not saying they are more altruistic. They are doing it to achieve their own agenda,” Baxter said.
However, Baxter added that the difficulty in mastering such language not only made it difficult for women to progress, but may put many off aiming for top positions.
She said women appeared to use DvD only when greatly outnumbered by men. Karren Brady, West Ham United Football Club’s vice-chair and star of the BBC show The Apprentice, did not need to use the linguistic tricks, she had noticed.
However, Helena Morrissey, 44, recently named one of the most influential woman in London, who oversees investments worth ￡47 billion (US$76.26 billion) as well as her family of nine children, said she recognized Baxter’s findings from her own experiences.
“It is hard to generalize because there is a spectrum, but the women I have worked with certainly don’t seek confrontation and would tend to try to avoid it, which would be consistent with this pre-empting of criticism and anxiety, I suppose; hedging, using humor to soften things,” she said.
“Some men enjoy a fight, enjoy confrontation, but I don’t think I’ve met any women who want to spark an argument, while I have seen men in the context of mainly male-orientated boardrooms or senior discussion almost seem to push somebody to have that discussion in a quite confrontational way. It is not only that women speak differently, they are also trying to avoid what will happen next. This is their style to get there,” she said.
Morrissey, chief executive of money management firm Newton, said she did not want women to start acting like men, but to be conscious of their language.
“It may be seen as a bit of weakness on the part of women, because you are not playing the game in the same way. Maybe subconsciously there is a feeling that this person isn’t as decisive, can’t hold her own, is unsure of her arguments,” she said.
“Don’t say: ‘You aren’t going to like this,’ just say it and know that is not making yourself be like the man. You will get your point across and no one is going to think badly [of you]. Well they might, but that is all part of the discussion and the hammer and tongs,” she said.
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