Dealing with Gender Differences in Council Chambers

By Novak, Kathie | Nation's Cities Weekly, November 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Gender Differences in Council Chambers


Novak, Kathie, Nation's Cities Weekly


How well does your council work together? Do you disagree constantly, even if you essentially agree on the issue? Does it seem like your fellow council members are coming from a foreign place? Do you sometimes feel misunderstood by others? Some of these problems may be attributed to elements that reside below the surface, and we do not recognize them for what they are--individual differences based on backgrounds, ethnicity, socio-economic status, education level or even gender.

Building a council team that works well together is critical. But how do you bring together a diverse group of people and turn them into an effective, well functioning group? Gender is just one dimension of the diversity challenge, but it can often be the most difficult challenge because of our underlying assumptions. We don't think of gender differences mattering much, after all, they shouldn't. And in fact, there are fewer gender differences than we think. Do men and women lead differently? No, not as a group. Do men and women manage differently? Again, as a group, no they do not. There may be gender-related difference, but they are not gender specific. Do men and women communicate differently? Research says yes, and this is where the challenge begins.

The work we do as elected officials occurs primarily in meetings-council meetings, meetings with constituents, meetings with staff. We communicate with groups, and with individuals. Communication functions on two levels. Language communicates ideas, but it also negotiates relationships. The patterns of communication are relatively different for men and women. What is "natural" for men is often different from what is "natural" for women. Why is this?

Deborah Tannen, author of "Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power," says it is because we learn ways of speaking as children growing up, and that the cultures that boys and girls grow up in are different. This is why she refers to cross-gender communication, as "cross-cultural" communication.

If you were going to take a trip to a foreign country, where your native language was not the spoken language in that country, you would pay particular attention to your communication. You would choose your words carefully; you would work to learn cultural nuances that might influence how you were understood, and how you understand others. You would expect some miscommunication, and you would probably be more patient in your own communication. Tannen concludes that if you talk to others whose conversation styles are similar to yours, you are safe to assume that they mean what you would mean if you spoke that way. But when conversational styles differ, as they do in foreign countries, or between men and women, this conclusion can lead to misinterpretation, misjudgment and miscommunication.

How does this play out in council chambers? Women say that they often feel dismissed, or tested, always needing to prove their competence and worth. Research continually is showing that women are interrupted and/or dismissed in public, in boardrooms and in general gender-mixed discussions. Women say that when they raise a point or make an issue, they are ignored, but when a male councilmember restates it, everyone pays attention. …

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