Code switching key to women's success

By Andrea Milner

Patsy Reddy. Photo / Dean Purcell
Patsy Reddy. Photo / Dean Purcell

With men still dominating top spots in the business world, how to be taken more seriously is the big question for working women.

Claire Damken-Brown and Audrey Nelson have co-authored a book to help women build workplace credibility through the way they communicate.

The authors - American corporate high-flyers and PhD scholars - say the different ways in which men and women are socialised to use language mean that often women's ideas aren't heard and they don't get the respect they deserve.

They stress that it's not about male bashing - they want to show how women can get male colleagues to take them more seriously by altering a few simple communication behaviours.

They call this "code switching" - the ability to switch between two or more languages and cultures to best communicate your message.

An example is for women to answer a question as concisely and directly as possible - even using one word. If the man wants more information, he'll ask for it.

They reason that men use language to give and get information, while women use it to build relationships, sometimes sharing more information than the man is asking for.

Nelson says a series of micro-inequities plays out daily in workplaces, such as women letting men interrupt while they are speaking. A man can express anger more readily and be viewed as a go-getter, yet a woman who is outspoken is often viewed negatively.

She says there is no correct style - the important thing is to understand the rules of engagement and know how to switch gears.

But Janet Holmes, linguistics professor at Wellington's Victoria University, warns against simplistic generalisations of men's and women's workplace interrelations as individual workplaces have differing cultures and attitudes. She agrees girls and boys are raised to communicate differently, but thinks that is changing.

Some workplaces are more masculine, in which old, conservative, anti-women attitudes still prevail, Holmes says. "But you can find women who behave in ways you would describe as very masculine and vice versa."

Taking a different tack

Patsy Reddy, chair of the New Zealand Film Commission, says women's more conciliatory communication style can be interpreted as a weakness.

Women generally speak more hesitantly and even the timbre of their voices can mean they are ignored. She has learned to project her voice during meetings, adopt a forthright delivery style - and to keep talking if she is interrupted.

Helen Anderson, chief executive of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, says scientists' culture of peer critique taught her to "slug it out with the boys", but the government environment is more negotiation-oriented.

Anderson speaks differently depending on the gender of a group she is addressing, introducing personal perspectives to build connections with a group of women.

Juliet McKee, a company director and economist, says some women need to learn not to take it personally if they offer an idea that is rejected. But she says double standards are "still out there and very strong".

- Herald on Sunday

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