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Women just speak differently

by jcp

Elva Ainsworth, CEO at Talent Innovations

There have in the past been gender differences in communication styles and strengths but how are these differences looking these days? This article analyses recent 360 data from 1000s of reviews that shows some of the trends and specifics related to gender.

The virtual world of work has changed the power dynamic between the genders.  In some respects, it has levelled the playing field by ensuring everyone is just one head shot amongst others – the advantages of height, size of office, position at table, seniority and posturing etc have been minimised. The requirement for home schooling and furloughing has hit women more than men however so it is not so simple. In fact, Zoom meetings mean that perhaps there is more focus on communication style than before and this is where subtle differences start to emerge. Surely, we are past this now? Latest figures from our 360 studies do indeed show progress but also highlight more subtle gender differences not often quoted – how we relate to risk and power.

360 data from a generic survey, ‘Inspiring Leader,’ show how women are being rated slightly stronger than men across almost all competencies, particularly when rated by other women. When comparing data from 2020 with 2013, both genders can be seen to have improved and women are clearly seen more positively on many traits. Women are seen particularly positively on ‘striving to grow” and ‘respect and empathy’ but their authority is not always evident. A recent survey has reported that 45% of women business leaders say it is difficult to speak up in virtual meetings. 20% felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues in this setting – a phenomenon of “manterrupting” has emerged. There are six reasons why this might be:

  1. Historically women have been seen as more polite and supportive, actively showing empathy and dealing with emotions rather more than men. Acting supportively may work against assertiveness in the world of Zoom which can only deal with one person talking at a time.

 

  1. Studies have consistently shown men to speak more abstractly than women. Recent analysis of thousands of blog posts as well as transcripts from Congressional sessions show this clear difference in style. There is a link here with power as those with more perceived power tend to use more abstract concepts when speaking.

 

  1. Facebook shows women as “interpersonally warmer, more compassionate and polite,” while men are “colder, more hostile and impersonal.” Emotional warmth may feel more empathic but may also work against the power dynamic.

 

  1. Expression of frustration is an area where the genders differ. Where women speak their minds, they can be seen as “harsh” when men would be seen as “strong.” This limits the bandwidth of self-expression available to women and again plays negatively into the power dynamics.

 

  1. Women “just don’t ask” for themselves and are consistently seen as lagging behind in negotiation skills. This is clearly impacting salaries as this hesitation to negotiate starts with first jobs and the gap then continues to widen. In a recent study of 1200 negotiations (Journal of Applied Psychology 2021), women underperformed when they had a strong alternative position – as if there was a backlash against a more aggressive stance.

 

  1. Tone of voice is important, with power and authority related to the deeper voice. There are very few women who have the vocal range to sing the lower tenor/bass parts of choral singing and very few men who have the range to sing the higher alto/soprano. It is not surprising that Margaret Thatcher is said to have worked on lowering her tone in her early days as Prime Minister.

Most of these differences are likely to be rooted in societal and cultural factors but there are clearly biological aspects involved also – all of which are tricky to change. The facts are that women make good leaders and are seen as doing better than men in many areas. But the data on Board membership is still disappointing – only 22% of corporate board positions and only 7% of chairs/lead directors are held by women. It may be a matter of time for us to see the trends show up at the Board level but it may be that we need to bring consciousness to the more subtle differences in style in order to take the next steps towards full diversity.

What can just one business do? Take time to reflect on how your Zoom calls are being managed and ensure everyone is heard fully. Watch how you respond to contributions from women and aim to look for the inspiration and the content, whatever the style.

 

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