Magazine article Training & Development

Language, Sex, and Power: Women and Men in the Workplace

Magazine article Training & Development

Language, Sex, and Power: Women and Men in the Workplace

Article excerpt


Okay, confession time: To what extent do you believe, along with author John Gray, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Forget about how gender differences play out in the bedroom. Let's talk about how they affect what happens in conference rooms, boardrooms, and executive offices.

Legislators on Capitol Hill may debate whether women in the military should be in combat, but women on the front lines of the military and businesses might say that they already are - considering that charges of sexual harassment make the headlines on a regular basis, from Mitsubishi to the U.S. Army.

Then there is the glass ceiling, which, as countless women will attest, remains firmly in place in workplaces across America. In October 1996, the research firm Catalyst reported that only 10 percent of top jobs at the 500 largest U.S. companies were held by women. And there was only one woman CEO among the ranks of the Fortune 500, Jill Bartad of Mattel.

Do those inequities account for the friction between men and women in the workplace, for the daily communication "disconnects," and for the incidents of harassment? What can men and women do to build bridges of better communication and understanding at work?

Those are just a few topics I wanted to cover with author, socio-linguist, and Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen when I met with her recently in her Washington, D.C. office.

Tannen, a respected and perhaps the best-known expert on workplace communication, is credited with being the first person to bring to the forefront the differences in communication styles between men and women. Her international bestseller, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (William Morrow, 1990), raised awareness about the differences and the fact that they are established in early childhood through talk and play.

For example, Tannen says that men tend to view conversations as "negotiations" in which they try to achieve status and maintain independence. For men, interactions are, on one level, a contest of power and will. Their goal is to avoid being the "weakest" boy on the playground.

Women, on the other hand, tend to view conversation as a way to connect with other people. For them, conversation is about finding commonality and building networks of connection and intimacy.

In Talking From 9-5, Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex, and Power (Avon Books, 1994), Tannen broke new ground by discussing the ways that gender differences can hinder (or enrich) communication between men and women at work. Tannen says that even when gender differences don't erupt in harassment or violence, they can affect who is valued in the workplace, who is recognized, who is promoted, and what gets done.

For example, many women have done well on a big project and then seen a man get the credit. Or they avert a major crisis and no one notices. Or they come up with a breakthrough idea for a new product and are ignored until a man suggests the same idea.

What's going on?

He asked, she said

Koonce: When you began researching your books and focusing on gender as part of your work, did you have any idea that there would be such a groundswell of interest?

Tannen: I think when it comes to gender, everyone knows it's an issue between men and women. Everyone knows there are certain discomfort levels and that you can feel frustrated, misunderstood, or puzzled by what a person of the other sex says to you.

Koonce: Your writing has caused a lot of women to have "uh-huh" experiences.

Tannen: That's true. It was the most common response after people read You Just Don't Understand. They said things like, "You've been hiding in my kitchen. I see myself on every page." It was gratifying. I wrote 9-5 because people told me that though the first book was helpful, I should write about the workplace because they spend half of their lives at work. …

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