Women – including those who work in senior positions for some of the country’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 Dr Judith Baxter, who undertook an 18-month study into the speaking patterns of men and women at meetings in seven major well-known companies, including two in the FTSE-100.
The research found that women were four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humour and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members in order to avoid conflict. And it doesn’t always work.
Baxter said such language, which the study describes as “double voice discourse” (DvD), 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 beginning comments with 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 claimed, 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 complete loss of authority during meetings. “They have to work really hard to hit the right note with their colleagues”, she said. “I have seen a woman use all the wrong linguistic strategies, and she lost the room”.
Baxter said she had heard one woman director, who had spoken just 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%, a marginal rise on the previous year.
Baxter said: “I found very few differences between men and female leadership language, but there was this one key difference, which I call double-voice discourse. Women use this when they are facing criticism or when handling conflict. While men tend to 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, to achieve their agenda.
“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.”
But Baxter added that the difficulty in mastering such language not only made it difficult for women to progress, but may put a lot of women off aiming for the top positions.
Baxter said women appeared to use DvD only when greatly outnumbered by men. Karren Brady, West Ham United FC’s vice chair and star of BBC show The Apprentice, did not need to use the linguistic tricks, she had noticed.
But Helena Morrissey, 44, recently named one of the most influential woman in the City, who oversees investments worth £47bn as well as her family of nine children, said she recognised Baxter’s findings from her own experiences. “It is hard to generalise because there is a spectrum, but actually the women I have worked with over the years 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 humour to soften things.
“There are some men who enjoy a good fight, enjoy confrontation, but I don’t think I have 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, but they are also trying to avoid what will happen next, and this is their style to get there.”
Morrissey, the chief executive of money management firm Newton, said she did not want women to start acting like men, but they should 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 tongues.”
The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011