Do Women Need to 'Man Up' to Make it?

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​For years, women have been told their communication skills in the workplace leave much to be desired. Try looking up ‘Mistakes women make when communicating’ – it isn’t hard to find a collection of tips that take aim at women based on the way they communicate ideas and recommendations.

Many of these ‘problems’ identified in the articles have clear solutions that tend to be centered on the idea of communicating more like men. So why do we emphasize masculine communication styles over feminine?

The current narrative in workplace communication

In a nutshell, if we are to believe the articles on the topic, women say words like ‘just’ and‘actually’ and ‘kind of’. They perform regular status checks with the people they communicate with: “Does that make sense?”. They will often hear an idea out without interrupting the speaker.

Without context, those may seem like non-issues. The argument is, though, that these pulse checks and moderating phrases make women seem unsure of themselves, which apparently causes others to lack confidence in their abilities.

While this may hold some weight, depending on the specific circumstances in which communications are taking place, it is important to remember that the current perspective on what makes a ‘good leader’ is based on many years’ research into management roles being held by men, which provides the social context and definitions of ‘success’. In other words, workplace communication is viewed through a biased lens.

And when men and women are held to the exact same communication standards, workplaces miss out on the benefits and nuances each gender brings to the table.

Gender differences in communication

Many people experience life in a way that socialises them based on their gender – whether it’s boys being encouraged to play competitive car racing games or girls given dolls so they can have tea parties together, boys are given opportunities to be in front and girls are given opportunities to compromise and collaborate.

The tendencies to cultivate relationships or establish dominance are continued through to the workplace for a lot of people, where they exhibit the gendered behaviour observed by many researchers.

This leads to not only different styles of expression but also different sets of ‘rules’.

So, while men might see a woman who says “Does that make sense?” after explaining a concept to someone as unsure of themselves and their ability to convey information, a woman may see that as a way to acknowledge the concept was difficult to grasp, giving the receiver a more graceful way to request another explanation.

When it comes to diverse workplaces, it is essential for management to both understand both styles of communication and the motivations behind different characteristics.

In her thesis, How men and Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communications Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles”, Karima Merchant writes:

While men, due to their goal-oriented approach to leadership roles, may be more likely than women to succeed in finance/accounting occupations, females have a natural advantage in public relations leadership positions due to their relationship-oriented leadership style. This is a prime example of how leadership styles are extremely situational as leadership style differences between men and women suggest success is different roles and occupations. These situational leadership advantages due to gender not only trace back to gender differences in leadership styles but to gender differences in communication styles and influence tactics as well.

Female leaders are more intimate and relational in conversation, making them better suited for a human resources or public relations leadership position in which one of their primary responsibilities is to communicate, listen, and tend to the needs of other people. Male leaders, on the other hand, use their assertive and powerful speech to succeed in leadership positions in general management, accounting, and sales occupations. These gender differences in leadership styles should not be looked at competitively.

Women are not better leaders than men, nor vice versa, they just have different skill sets and leadership styles due to their psychological gender differences. Therefore, they should be looked at through different models or lenses of leadership to account for these gender differences. These gender differences should not be used as a reason to discriminate against male or female leaders, but rather they should be acknowledged and analyzed so that male and female leaders are placed in positions in which they can best contribute their abilities. To increase efficiency and successful leader-situation placement, leaders should be placed where their skills are most useful and applicable to the leadership role.

 

What communication styles have been found effective in the workplace?

The differences explored lend themselves to two common business structures – hierarchical and flat. The best managers will generally invoke each structure as necessary. For example, when deciding what the next team building activity will be, a flat, collaborative structure may be appropriate. But say a big client threatens to leave – this is where a decisive leader will need to step forward and ‘rally the troops’.

So, when it comes to business, an effective leader is more likely to be someone who is a versatile communicator, rather than one who is locked into gendered styles.

This is backed by the concept of transformational or transactional leadership. Transactional leadership is often associated with men (i.e. keeping the business operating) while transformational leadership tends to favour characteristics more typically exhibited by women (team-building, motivation and collaboration). And while research backs up transformational leaders being seen as slightly more effective than transactional leaders, the most effective leaders seem to be versatile and able to adapt their approach to the situation at hand.

Do women need to just stop saying ‘just’ if they want a promotion?  

In a perfect world, the only bad communication style would be the one that doesn’t get the point across. As it stands, whether or not women need to adjust their communication style probably depends on their workplace diversity and the attitudes of those they report to.

Looking forward, though, there’s reason to hope that everyone will aim to be a flexible and effective communicator, regardless of gender – because that’s what will help build successful organisations.

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