Monday, 27 February 2012

Could language have something to do with the glass ceiling?

Much research has been carried out on male and female roles in business. While it’s a consistent finding that there are fewer women in management positions, there seems to be less consistency in the type of language styles and strategies employed by each gender.
For example, it has been proposed that females are associated with indirect, conciliatory styles which incorporate supportive feedback in their structure.  On the other hand, males tend to be linked with direct, confrontational styles and their discourse will feature more aggressive interruptions.  However, Hans Ladegaard’s research found that reality is a lot more complex than this.
As part of a bigger project, Ladegaard approached executives working in a large entrepreneurial company in Denmark and asked 2 males and 2 females to wear a digital device to record their interactions during a typical day at work (such as chaired meetings, proposal discussions etc).  He wanted to look at how power relationships were established, maintained and challenged, and if there were any differences between their interactions.
His basic findings support those of Baxter’s ( in that both males and females were found to use a range of interactional strategies, making it illogical to label one as ‘female’ and one as ‘male’.  One particular ‘softening’ device was using inclusive we instead of direct you (for example, perhaps we could move that forward?)  However, Ladegaard does note that males were the only speakers to use, albeit rarely, truly direct unmitigated directives, such as give me your home number then (one leader’s response to an employee in his department who was taking time off before an important deadline). A more mitigated directive would be would you give me your home number, perhaps even with an added please.
Ladegaard suggests that a point of greater interest is how the females had their authority routinely challenged by males who worked in their departments, even though both the male and female executives use similar approaches in their discourse. There’s an example in the  box.

Tanya (female leader and chair) arrives in the conference room after two male engineers (Dennis and Christian) are already seated.  The meeting was to discuss project ideas and Tanya opens as follows. [//xxx// shows overlapping speech]
            Tanya:   do you want me to try to present something or….?
            Dennis:  yes but I think you need to explain something
            Tanya:   // about how//
            Dennis: //you hadn’t mentioned// anything about a recording
Adapted from Ladegaard (2011:10)
Dennis is referring to the recording equipment that Tanya is wearing and is immediately challenging its use in the meeting (even though all staff had been informed of the day it was going to be used and the reasons for it).  This immediately challenges Tanya’s authority by suggesting that she is accountable to Dennis, when, in reality, it should be the other way around.  In addition to this, Dennis continues interrupting and questioning Tanya and even enlists support from Christian. The effects of this are clear in Tanya’s speech as, later, her discourse becomes quite hesitant and disconnected.
Ladegaard finds that challenges like these were never present in the male leaders’ interactions, only the females’, suggesting that the maintenance of power is an obstacle for women in the workplace.  His analysis also highlights the attributes of one of the male leaders, Martin.  Martin, who was the only leader to be praised by his staff on several occasions, was found to use a wide range of styles (relating to both direct and indirect approaches) in his interactions, as well as a constant alternation between shop-talk and social-talk.  This suggests that a successful and popular leader needs to be sensitive to different interactional contexts and stylistically flexible in their use of discourse structures.
Ladegaard, H. J. (2011) 'Doing Power' at work: Responding to male and female management styles in a global business corporation. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 4-19.
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.09.006

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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