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A culture of gender-sensitive speech is more than just using neutral language

Gender and language - most people probably associate them with debates about pronouns or the use of gender neutral words. Grammar, syntax and semantics form the basis of our communication and are taught to us from primary school age. But there are also subtle, social rules that shape our speaking behavior and yet usually remain invisible.


Raising your voice - our speech culture is gendered


The way we speak is socialized. From an early age, we learn how we should speak in front of and with others, what is appropriate and what is not. Our social gender is a determining factor in this. 


Our speech culture is not neutral, it is gendered. Whether in films, in private or in the work environment, this means that the way women and men speak (and the way they are expected to speak) can be very different. This blog post aims to uncover invisible 'rules' of speaking in our work culture and provide suggestions for fairer practice.


Who is allowed to speak at work - and for how long?


In meetings, at business lunches or at conferences: Men get to speak more often and for longer. They speak twice as often at academic colloquia, as researchers at Princeton University (1) have shown. Female speakers are underrepresented relative to the actual proportion of women in the respective subjects. The proportion of women speaking is also unbalanced in other settings: In group decision-making processes, the speaking time of women speaking is usually less than 75 percent of their male colleagues’. The imbalance is further exacerbated when women make up the smaller part of a group: their share of the speaking time then falls proportionally even lower than the percentage of women present (2). 


Once a woman is speaking, there is a good chance that she will be interrupted. A study on speaking culture in formal meetings came to the following conclusions: Men interrupt their colleagues twice as often as women do, interrupting female colleagues almost three times as often as other men. But women also interrupt: Women predominantly do not let other women finish speaking, while they interrupt male colleagues far less often (3). In short: women tend to be interrupted by everyone, men do this particularly often and with a preference for female colleagues. This counter-gendered speech practice has a pop-cultural name: Manterrupting.


Speaking against the clock: strategies for getting a word in edgewise


These circumstances leave their mark on the speaking behavior of many women in the workplace. At the risk of being interrupted at any moment, women speak faster on average. In addition, they often organize their arguments in advance in order to make the most efficient use of the time available to them. Monologues that are rather sparse in terms of substance and delivered with unchallenged confidence are not usually part of their repertoire. 


Many workplaces show a gendered speaking culture.
Many workplaces show a gendered speaking culture.


Speaking is golden: speaking as a status symbol


But why is our speaking behavior so different? It also has to do with power: The speaking time we are granted reflects our status. And, regardless of the actual professional role, this is decidedly attributed or depreciated in connection with gender identity.


The examples of counter-gendered speech culture mentioned above - less speaking time and proportion and being interrupted disproportionately often - are among the experiences that women in managerial positions also have. Even with the same professional status, language practice remains unequal. While men speak more in proportion to their increasing professional influence, the proportion of speech by women remains relatively unchanged, even in positions of power (4). 


Apparently, gender is a deciding factor. Having a seat at the table on the board of directors or supervisory board does not automatically mean having a voice. But if women are already here, why not simply speak up like their male colleagues?


Women cannot "simply" adopt a male speaking practice. 


If a woman takes the same time to speak as a man in the same position, her behavior will be judged differently. As far as speaking culture is concerned, there is, as is so often the case, a double standard. For example, participants in a Yale study rated a female CEO who speaks more than other CEOs as significantly less competent and less suitable for a leadership position than a male CEO with the same speaking time. The gender of the evaluator was not a decisive factor - all participants in the study had a gender bias towards female CEOs (4). 


If women were to start adopting a "masculine" rhetoric, this would therefore be to their disadvantage. According to the study, they would be perceived as "brash" or even "aggressive" - their competence would be denied.


Think of speaking culture as part of the work culture


Culture is not something fixed, it is constantly changing. We ourselves are constantly negotiating new social norms and letting go of old ideas. Instead of a speech culture in which it is reserved for men to deliver and interrupt monologues, we can cultivate speech practices that do not come at the expense of others. 


To do this, it is necessary to take a step back in order to recognize patterns and critically reflect on our own behaviour. An awareness of the prevailing (potentially unequal) speaking culture is the basis for change. In the next step, it also helps to make colleagues, friends and family members aware of their behavior if, for example, they constantly interrupt other people. Conversely, you can also positively encourage those who otherwise take up little space, genuinely listen to them and show appreciation for their contributions.



Making speaking a topic even after corona 


The speaking culture of many of our customers has changed since the start of the pandemic with the shift to digital spaces. In some cases, new speaking practices developed, for example in moderated Zoom meetings. Suddenly, it became a matter of course to communicate clearly about who was supposed to speak when and in what order. In addition to the many challenges that otherwise came with the digitalization of team meetings, the speaking culture became more egalitarian in many cases as a result of these discourses.  


A clearer and potentially fairer etiquette has been normalized in the digital space. Perhaps we will be able to take the codes established there into everyday post-corona life? It would be worth a try, after all, it is time for a culture of speech in which everyone has a voice. Online and offline.


Sources


(1) Nittrouer/Hebl/Ashburn-Nardo/Trump-Steele/Lane/Valian, 2017: Gender disparities in colloquium speakers at top universities. Princeton University.

(2) Karpowitz/Mendelberg /Shaker, 2012: Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation. Cambridge University Press.

(3) Snyder, Kieran, 2014: How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men. Language Log.

(4) Brescoll, Victoria, 2011: Who Takes the Floor and Why Gender, Power, and Volubility in Organizations. Yale School of Management.



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