Skip to content Skip to navigation

On Leadership: Changing how we use our words and bodies

Aug 27 2010

Originally posted on August 27, 2010 in the Washington Post. "In Japan, we say there are three genders: Men, women, and American women," joked the head of our Tokyo office.

It was 1992 and he was trying to inoculate me for my first week of Japanese business meetings - against any worry that I might be held to local female standards: being deferential toward men (not good at that), speaking in a soft, high voice (ditto), serving tea (spills likely). I laughed, thankful that he was giving me license to be myself - and thankful that I was a member of the third sex, American women, unburdened by the gender codes of traditional societies.

This summer, The Daily Show's "women" kerfuffle reset my blithe sense that we're so much freer of cultural baggage. Top female ex-staffers said they'd felt "ignored and dismissed" and the knee-jerk debate about sexism ensued. Is there a more useful way to look at these all-too-common rows? Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers offers one alternate frame.

The book shows how the weight of culture can bring down even planes. Cultures laden with hierarchy, it turns out, have bad crash records because junior officers feel unable to voice concerns. Korean Airlines (KAL) was the worst - stunning the world with a string of crashes because their flight crews could not speak up. From the black boxes of doomed planes, Gladwell reveals an alarming truth. Social norms can be insidious, costly - and sometimes stronger than the will to live. How did KAL fix this problem? They changed the language of the cockpit - to English. By changing the words spoken, KAL re-set the tone in the cockpit and gave subordinates a way to make themselves heard. While U.S. women have cast off many a mental girdle, we've held onto social standards that cause a lot of trouble.

With the help of the guys around us, we continue to act out norms that generate unhappiness between men and women - and make it harder for us to work together. After many late nights, I'd flown cross country as the junior member of a restructuring team. Our client was a bank on the verge of collapse and our job was to save it. In the meeting, my boss glowered. The bank's leaders argued among themselves rather than responding to our analysis. When it was my turn to speak, I tried to ease the tension by putting context around our numbers and using a warm tone. The bank's CEO ignored what I was saying to instead squabble with a board member next to me - for 10 minutes. Yielding to the will of the client, I sat back and attempted a patient smile. "You lost control of the meeting," my boss said gruffly on the way to the airport. "You should have looked the CEO in the eye and said, 'You're wrong! You're missing the point.' Worse, you were wordy and you smiled at him, like it was OK that he interrupted you." I didn't recall my boss saying anything so bold and wasn't sure how effective I, the team minion, would have been with a stare-down. But my boss made me think: Why all the words and why had I smiled? Researching Getting to 50/50, I learned that women speak an average of 21,000 words a day while men use a mere 7,000. (My husband says I'm above average and should shield him from my verbal tsunami; but studies say female verbal supremacy is really a form of deference - that we feel obliged to explain ourselves more than men do). Data also shows we women more often tilt our heads and smile encouragingly because we've been socialized to think this is the polite thing to do. And we wait patiently for our turn to speak. And don't retaliate when interrupted. So when women say they don't feel heard, should we tell them to act more like men? Or should men drop the dominance bit - and learn to like listening? Both would help.

Men and women need to get on the same page about what's "normal," so we work together more constructively. It's not generational, either. Talking with a panel of current business school students, a female lecturer said "You know, I make a big effort to call on women in my class. But it seems like the guys still dominate the conversation. Why is that?" The female students had an interesting take: It's not that the women are too quiet, it's that the men are too noisy. "Guys in our class feel free to express an opinion when they haven't read the case. They have no shame. Women think that's irresponsible and don't speak unless they have something valuable to say." When a graduate school professor was asked why there weren't more female speakers in his classes, he had a simple answer: "Well, men bang down my door to come present their ideas. Women seem to be waiting to be asked." To get beyond mere anecdotes, check out The OpEd Project, an effort committed to closing one specific gender gap: Men submit eight times more newspaper opinion pieces than women do. Sitting in an OpEd Project seminar, I saw women who are tenured professors, leaders in business, medicine and law reveal an extreme inability to utter a simple sentence: "I am an expert in X because Y" as in "I am an expert in cloning because I invented some of the first successful techniques." "It's so male to do that!" a highly accomplished woman said. "It sounds like you are putting yourself forward."

Catherine Orenstein, the group's founder, says this is common among the thousands of people who've gone through her program - that even world-renown women experience discomfort applying the word "expert" to themselves in a way men don't. Korean Airlines imported a new language to fix its cockpit culture problems. Changing language - the one that divides men and women - can go a long way to fix glitches in gender culture too. To start, let's think twice about common phrases that widen male/female gaps, instead of shrinking them. "She's aggressive." Before I worked for her, this is how a guy friend described one of my favorite bosses. The woman, I learned, was indeed vocal - and incredibly kind. I've since heard experts say there's one trait that defines successful women in business: they're louder. So no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, let's encourage as much volume in our daughters as we do in our sons. "My wife stays home; it's better that way." I once hired a lawyer to review an employment contract. Unprompted he cautioned me: "You don't really want this job, do you? When both parents have demanding jobs, kids don't do well." While I was paying for this inaccurate advice (real facts here), many women tell us they get it for free - often from well-intentioned co-workers. No matter what you believe about kids, if you wouldn't urge a man to back away from a job, please don't suggest it to a woman. "My husband can't multi-task." "Learned incompetence" is debilitating for all of us. When we use words that excuse a man from knowing how to handle household chores and children (or a woman from knowing how to handle an oil change, the TV remote or money), we set ourselves up for collisions that could be avoided. And every time we apply a common language to men and women, we nudge the culture, inch by inch, away from double standards. But, there's a silent language that we can each change instantly - if we know it exists.

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, leadership professor Deborah Gruenfeld teaches a course called "Acting with Power," where students learn to look for and use non-verbal cues of high and low status. Guess what? Most high-power behaviors, like claiming space, bold gestures, and interrupting, are typically seen as "male." Acts of "playing low", including keeping limbs close to the body, glancing away and nodding encouragement, are often thought of as "female." Gruenfeld points out that, when it comes to having influence, the quality of the argument is often less important than the status of its proponent. And status is signaled in milliseconds by each of us when we walk in a room. So who gets heard is also a function of the language our bodies convey. "The students in my classes come in feeling trapped by the ways they have learned to play gender roles," she says. "But they learn very quickly that what feels natural is just over-learned, and that different work roles call for different kinds of physical actions, regardless of gender. To succeed in a hierarchy, you need to be able to play both high and low. There are real benefits to both." As we try to find a lingua franca both genders can use, new research offers some norm-shifting ideas.

Whether you're a man or woman, putting your body in positions that speak power makes you feel good. See yourself as the executive in the boardroom who "crests the table with his feet, fingers interlaced behind his back, elbows pointing outwards" and amazing things happen. Your testosterone (confidence) rises, cortisol (stress) falls, you're more likely to take risk and feel "in charge." Who doesn't like that? So let's encourage our girls to put their feet up - and make changing the language both comfortable and fun.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.