Can a Leader talk like a Girl?

by Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith
25th February 2016

A bunch of questions

Do you ever wonder whether you’re a leader? I don’t mean whether you have a job title that makes you the boss or whether you are a Bible study leader. Those are roles that you fill. But do you see yourself as a leader? The saying, “If nobody is following you, you’re not leading – you’re just going for a walk” comes to mind. So, are you leading or going for a walk? And when you think about whether you’re a leader, what criteria do you use? In other words, what do you think are the qualities of a “leader”? Strong? Confident? Decisive? Inclusive? Charismatic? Fair?

The concreteness of abstract concepts

I daresay most people would say that confidence is a desirable quality in a leader – amongst a number of other qualities, of course. What does confidence look like? A relaxed demeanour, clear eye-contact, personal but not emotional, clear articulation of opinions….do these qualities describe a confident person? If you agree, let’s press on.

Perhaps you would say that a confident person is also someone who communicates directly without beating about the bush. You might think that a confident person gets straight to the point, without waffling or giving indirect hints. Or you might say that a confident person is someone who knows his/her mind and isn’t afraid to speak it.

All of these may indeed be indicators of confidence. But they do not define confidence. In fact, confidence is an abstract concept; consequently the perception of it is entirely dependent on us and what we look for in what we understand as “confidence.” But often we have a collective understanding of abstract concepts (such as assertiveness, strength, charisma, etc.) so much so that we forget that it is we who collectively create the meaning of these concepts. In other words, people who live in a particular social and cultural environment have a collective understanding of what abstract concepts such as confidence, strength, assertiveness, charisma, fairness, etc. look like. Put together, these qualities are often seen as markers of a good leader.

The danger of forgetting the social (and cultural) aspect of our definitions of these abstract qualities is that when we encounter someone from a different culture, we forget that they operate by a different set of socio-cultural definitions. What ‘confidence’ looks like in our culture might not be the same in another. For example, there is an Asian proverb that says, ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ – meaning, those who talk a lot don’t have much going on in the way of intelligence! In the West, being vocal about one’s opinions is often seen as a sign of confidence. On the contrary, if someone is mostly quiet, s/he is likely to be perceived as introverted, shy, or lacking in confidence. This is one example of cultural differences in the perception of abstract concepts.

The case of men and women

Understanding the contextual and cultural nature of abstract concepts is a good place to start when discussing our perception of men and women in leadership. Let’s go back for a moment to our initial list of qualities of a leader: strong, confident, decisive, inclusive, charismatic, fair. This is not a list from a textbook, by the way – these are just illustrations of qualities that are typically associated with (perceptions of) a ‘leader.’ And we perceive these qualities in a person through the way s/he talks, interacts with people, and even by how s/he dresses and walks.

The trouble is, men and women are socialised to communicate and conduct themselves differently. While there are cultural differences in the specifics of how men and women are socialised, the fact that there are gender differences in socialisation remains true across most if not all cultures. In the Western context, for example, men are encouraged to be assertive, sporty, vocal, ‘tough,’ and logical (rather than emotive). Little boys are taught to toughen up, and ‘spit it out’ when they’re trying to say something tentatively. Women, on the other hand, are socialised to be relational and accommodating, with great concessions given for emotive behaviour. If a little girl cries, she is likely to be comforted while her brother might be told to shake it off. These may be crude generalisations, but they capture the dominant paradigm of gender socialisation. Extending this to adult communication behaviour, men have had years of socialisation in communicating in linear, logical, and assertive ways – i.e. communicating ‘confidently.’ Women have had years of socialisation in inclusiveness such that they often frame opinions in the form of questions (E.g. “I feel this is what we should do, but what do you think?”) which makes them sound uncertain; they are more inclined to prioritise relationship over task (often coming across as incompetent or unambitious), and more willing to show emotion in public (thereby being perceived as ‘weak’).

This excerpt from the book Raising Women Leaders[1]explains this further:

Social stereotypes contribute to gender-related perceptions of power. For example, male sportscasters are viewed more credible…and authoritative than female sportscasters. This is likely due to the general perception that sporting events are male-oriented. In more subtle ways, those who make direct eye-contact, speak in a linear fashion, are verbally explicit, and avoid hedging or hesitant statements are often perceived as powerful, confident communicators. There is evidence to suggest that men use fewer hedges (E.g. well…I suppose…) and tag questions (E.g. don’t you? Isn’t he?), compared to women. This again contributes to a female speaker being perceived as less confident or authoritative, when in fact the speaker may have been motivated to use a tag question in an effort to include the other person in the conversation (p. 238).

In sum, because of the way men and women are socialised in their communication styles, and because of the qualities we associate with ‘leadership,’ a ‘leader’ looks and speaks much more like a man than a woman. Yet one would assume that good leadership in an organisation, for example, should be evaluated based on qualification (experience, knowledge, training) and outcomes (growth of the organisation, growth of people within the organisation, health of the organisation) rather than surface perceptions of ‘competence.’ Unfortunately, however, perceptions play a large role in determining whether a person is given a position of leadership in the first place. And perceptions continue to play a role in the evaluation of the leaders’ decisions, working to reinforce initial impressions. If our mental image of a ‘leader’ looks like a man, then a woman in a position of leadership would have to work extra hard to dispel those pre-existing biases to ‘prove’ herself. Often women in positions of leadership have adapted stereotypically ‘masculine’ styles of communication, consciously or otherwise, in this effort to fit into the pre-conceived mould of a leader.

Does this mean women cannot be confident, strong, charismatic, decisive leaders? Certainly not! But if we want a society in which men and women have a fair opportunity to be perceived as leaders, then we need to seriously expand our frame of reference for these abstract concepts which collectively make up our perception of leadership.

Re-thinking social constructs

As previously mentioned, a good place to begin is to recognise that our understanding of abstract concepts such as confidence and strength are socially constructed. We have collectively agreed on what confidence and strength look like – likewise we can collectively agree to expand the definition of these concepts to include female communication patterns which often portray confidence, strength, charisma, and other ‘leadership’ qualities in unique ways. In fact stereotypically ‘male’ and ‘female’ communication patterns should be seen for what they are – socially constructed stereotypes! There are men who communicate in ‘feminine’ ways and women who communicate in ‘masculine’ ways. But if we are able to see beyond the gender stereotypes and identify differences in communication styles for what they are, then there is potential for expanding our frame of reference.

For example, can confidence be seen in a soft-spoken person who listens more than speaks? Can decisiveness be seen in a person who always asks for others’ feedback in the decision-making process? Can assertiveness be seen in a person who never interrupts someone when they are talking? Can strength be seen in someone who is equally comfortable with displaying emotions as s/he is with displaying intellect?

The main question here is, can a leader talk like a girl? Let’s hope so! Because the alternative is that we either end up with little or no women in positions of leadership and/or women in positions of leadership who communicate like men (i.e. like a ‘leader’ as per social norm). If we are not happy with this alternative, then we must re-think our social constructs.

[1] Arasaratnam, L. A. (2009). Communication and expectations: Differences between men and women explored. In S. Clifton and J. Grey (Eds.), Raising women leaders: Perspectives in liberating women in Pentecostal and charismatic contexts (pp. 236-253). Sydney Australia: APS.