(Full cartoon here: http://thecooperreview.com/non-threatening-leadership-strategies-for-women/)
I recently stumbled across the above cartoon. While I appreciate and agree with its sentiment – that women (and those who identify as women) are often judged harshly for merely trying to communicate in a direct way – it brings up an interesting point that I’ve been mulling over for a while. The politics around how women talk – or “should talk” – is not a black and white matter.
First, I want to affirm that I believe that there are different ways that men and women are socialized to interact. And I don’t dispute that women often have been socialized to ask for things in a softer, perhaps less direct way, etc., and communicate in ways that we’ll call “stereotypically feminine” for the sake of brevity.
But of late, I’ve heard some of my colleagues, “strong” women in journalism, argue that they have no patience for women who don’t choose the path of “direct” communication – that those of us who present and interact in a more “stereotypically feminine” way are therefore, implicitly, weak, ignorant, and helping our oppressor oppress us.
I find this type of judgement myopic to the extreme – to the point that it’s engaging in another form of subtle sexism.
The obvious reason why all women don’t just simply start interacting in a more “stereotypically male” or a more “direct” fashion is that there are very real consequences. Studies have shown that women are judged more harshly, disliked more, and even punished professionally when they adopt “stereotypically male” methods of communication, especially when they are in leadership positions or positions of authority. There’s a distinct double standard.
I’ve also personally found this to be true – many people in the various places I’ve worked react badly when I’m communicating my needs and wants and thoughts in a direct fashion. (Women in addition to men, interestingly.)
This is, of course, ridiculously unfair. It should change. But we should also realize that the issue is complicated. Humans are rational beings – it’s rare that we’re not thinking about our best interest on some level. It’s not that many women don’t know how to be direct, or are too scared. (And that’s not a helpful line of thinking.) I believe it’s that we’re well attuned to the complexities of existing in a world where the patriarchy rules everything around us. It’s also that many of us would rather get along with our colleagues, get the work done with minimal hassle, and err on the side of caution if our chances for a promotion are on the line.
And though I strive for direct communication as much as the next person, and am constantly trying to be better at it, there should be a distinction between pointing out how you think people can improve their own struggle for equality and thinking that everyone who doesn’t follow that path is wrong – a point I’ve heard some of my female colleagues make.
Which brings up another point – there’s a difference between communicating in a direct way and adopting certain obnoxious “stereotypically male” characteristics.
On more than one occasion I’ve noticed women talking over me in meetings, and I’ve had my pitches and ideas for stories stolen by women colleagues and passed off as their own.
In no situation should it be considered ok to ‘splain to people, drown them out with your voice, interrupt them and take credit for their ideas, no matter your sex or preferred gender.
We would be doing a lot more to support equitable treatment at work if we were to accept that presenting and communicating in “stereotypically feminine” ways, which may involve lots of smiles and “does this make sense?” type of phrases, is a valid form of communication, and that we shouldn’t judge nor take people less seriously for it.
We should validate that that type of communication, too, deserves to be listened to, and treat our colleagues with the respect we afford every other human being.
That’s one way we can break the cycle of sexism.
Better that we build each other up, and use techniques like amplifying one another’s voices in meetings. Sure, be direct if you can and want to. Directness is good. I think calmly telling someone “hang on, I’m not finished” when they interrupt you is a great method.
But we gain nothing by giving in to our worst impulses, or adopting attitudes that repress and oppress one another, or accusing each other of being cogs in the wheel of repression because we communicate in different ways.
There’s no set way women should act or interact. If we can understand this, we will have a far better chance of succeeding.