'Censoring' language is key to female survival in the boardroom
Release Date 27 January 2009
New research from the University of Reading argues that women leaders have to be language experts to survive the rigours of the boardroom.
Women learn to censor their language to be accepted by their male colleagues but the effort for some could be too much, and is part of the reason why women remain seriously under-represented in UK boardrooms.
Dr Judith Baxter, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading, argues, in a paper published later this month in the Journal of Gender and Language, that both male and female business leaders are equally able to switch between assertive 'masculine' styles and co-operative 'feminine' styles of speaking. While males are often praised for their use of co-operative speech, women are criticised for using direct or assertive speech. Terms like 'scary', 'bossy', 'aggressive' or 'hard' are used against them in negative or prejudicial ways – both by male and female colleagues.
Women have developed very interesting strategies to overcome the age-old 'double bind' in the board room. They have learnt to police their linguistic behaviour so that they neither sound too feminine (and therefore weak) nor too masculine (and therefore assertive).
Dr Judith Baxter said: "The evidence points to female leaders having to expend considerably more energy than males in regulating the way they speak, which potentially adds a significant pressure to the business of 'doing leadership' effectively.
"Women are involved in 'additional conversational work' to counter the effects of being typecast as 'irrational females'. While their developed linguistic skills can be very useful tools, the efforts required in exhibiting these skills is also potentially stressful, time-consuming, undermining for the self."
Strategies developed by women to police their own language include making use of rigorous preparation, warmth of manner, telling a joke to downplay giving an order, an acceptance of being teased, mitigated commands and forms of politeness such as apology, compliments and praise. While these strategies can enable women to thrive, they might also dilute the force of the words and offer a linguistic reason why females expend more energy to stay at the top.
One senior woman manager interviewed for the research said she would never say to a colleague, 'Hang on, what you're saying is nonsense', unlike her male colleagues. She would rephrase the point indirectly as 'That's a great way of looking at it, but I would prefer to view it in this way'. However, there is often a place for direct talking as a leader.
Dr Baxter continued: "In modern times, male managers are celebrated for their use of a more co-operative discourse. However, women are often castigated for the appropriation of more authoritative forms of discourse when required and they constantly have to pay attention to the Other's point of view.
"Women will remain under-represented in leadership positions unless there is a major cultural shift in attitudes towards language. The corporate world needs to evaluate senior women's linguistic behaviour much more positively. Currently for women, the effective use of language requires social, emotional and intellectual intelligence as well as huge amounts of hard work. This can enable a number of them to move from good to great, but for others, it may be too great a price to pay for professional success."
Further information from Alex Brannen, Media Relations Manager, on 0118 378 7388
Notes to editors:
The respondents in the research study comprise a mix of UK CEOs and Executive Board directors – almost all from multi-national conglomerates from FTSE 500 companies.
Stark differences remain between the distribution of males and females at senior leadership levels in multi-national companies in Britain with only 11% of leaders in FTSE 100 being women.
Interviews were conducted with ten senior women and ten senior men about how they construct their sense of leadership identities through the medium of interview accounts.
The University of Reading is ranked as one of the UK's top research-intensive universities. The quality and diversity of the University's research and teaching is recognised internationally as one of the top 200 universities in the world.
The University takes a real-world perspective to its research and is consistently one of the most popular higher education choices in the UK.