The language of [business] success

Women use language differently in the boardroom and show skills which are only apparent in men who have consciously taken part in special training, according to new research.

Women use language differently in the boardroom and show skills which are only apparent in men who have consciously taken part in special training, according to new research.

Dr Judith Baxter of Aston University leads the Gender and Leadership Talk in Business Meetings project. She is also author of The Language of Female Leadership. Her project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, studied language patterns in the boardroom and among senior managers and ended in May this year.

She says women leaders are much more likely to use what she calls double voiced discourse [DvD], adapting their language to suit different circumstances. For instance, they may use self-deprecating terms, humour or speak indirectly when approaching difficult subjects so as to avoid conflict.

Dr Baxter says women are much more likely to use DvD when the board is dominated by men as a strategy for getting their points across. “Most of the many techniques women use are to avoid conflict,” she says, “but they can be used to make people take them more seriously. Men do use the techniques too, but women are around four times more likely to than men. Men tend to be more straight talking and more direct. If they have to be confrontational they go for it and sometimes they appear to welcome it, but it is not seen as personal. Women tend to avoid confrontation in the boardroom unless it is necessary and then see it as a strategy, in which case it can be personal.”

She adds that this use of language by women appears to be something they learn as they grow up. “In the playground girls learn that there are ‘acceptable’ ways to resolve conflict which don’t involve direct attack,” she says.

Men, on the other hand, only tend to use these linguistic skills if they have had some sort of leadership development training, she says, for instance, in emotional intelligence. “For them it is very learnt and they are very conscious of using it. The skills tend to be used by men who are more self aware and critical, but they are not used as generally as they are by women,” she adds.

Dr Baxter says that, for women in a male-dominated boardroom, such skills are a protective pre-emptive strategy. “They could be seen as a strategy for success. It is quite sophisticated,” she says. “DvD is a form of linguistic manipulation in the best sense. Women leaders need to achieve their goals and to do so they need to preserve their alliances, particularly with other senior women. It’s not altruistic.”

Dr Baxter says women leaders who are more direct tend to be seen as surrogate men so using DvD is a skillful strategy “to preserve their feminity and achieve their goals”.

She says DvD skills are increasingly important in business and there is growing emphasis on emotional intelligence in management training. However, when women go to emotional intelligence courses, she says, they tend to sit there thinking “we already do all of this”. “Men tend to be more likely to see emotional intelligence training as revelatory,” she adds.

She says all the companies she worked with for the research were receptive to the idea that DvD skills were important and needed more recognition. “DvD is not a weak strategy. Being self-deprecating, for instance, is a strategy for success and it’s a strategy that works,” she says.

She adds that that is not to say that women do not also use more assertive techniques when necessary. “It’s about using a range of techniques,” she says.

Dr Baxter has just finished an article for an academic journal on DvD and will be writing more. She has also been approached to write a more popular how to book on language and business success for women. “Women do not fully appreciate how we choose language as a resource and the book would try to hone these skills and make women more aware of them,” she says.

She adds that DvD use is the main way that men and women vary in the way they use language in business, but adds that men are also more likely to use personal pronouns and say things like “I think” whereas women will use “we” and phrases like “I understand” more readily. “Women’s language tends to be more inclusive,” she says.

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