Language a barrier to business women

Women in business
Women in business

14th December 2010

A new research study from Aston University suggests that leadership language may be a barrier for business women reaching the top in their careers.

Despite female success in the workplace, only 12.5% of UK plc board directors are women according to the recently published Female FTSE Board Report (Vinnicombe, Sealy, Graham and Doldor, 2010).

Past research has studied organisational reasons for the lack of women at leadership level (for example lack of senior female role models, maternity leave and work-life balance), but the Aston University study is unique because it asks whether use of leadership language may be a cause.

Dr Judith Baxter and her colleagues are investigating whether senior women in male-dominated businesses have a harder job than men to be effective through their talk, for example to be listened to, taken seriously, influence the views of others effectively, make key decisions and create impact.

It is the first time that an applied linguistic comparison of the ways male and female leaders talk in executive meetings has been carried out in the UK.

Dr Baxter explains: ‘In this ESRC funded study, we found that senior women have to demonstrate more linguistic expertise than men to achieve the same level of recognition, impact, and support of their colleagues – because leadership is still largely seen as a male preserve.  Linguistic expertise means taking a judgement call on how and when to use specific features of politeness, humour, persuasion and direct language to make the right impact on others. Previous research (for example Holmes 2006) has shown that leadership is seen as a masculine construct: women leaders are the exception to the norm of male leadership. Our research has found that senior women have to work much harder than men to create the same linguistic impact on their colleagues.

‘Linguistic expertise’ does not mean a female style of leadership language that only women use. Men and women’s language is really quite similar (Cameron 2006). One key feature of linguistic expertise is ‘double-voiced discourse’ – that is, a type of linguistic ‘second guessing’. This means that women constantly have to adjust their language to take account of the agendas of their colleagues. In male-dominated settings, linguistic expertise can be a survival strategy to help senior women avoid the non-compliance or criticism of male colleagues.

‘For example, senior women use linguistic expertise to ‘repair’ errors of judgement. In one instance where a female MD interrupted a male subordinate who was clearly annoyed by this, she said, ‘Sorry to cut across you like that, David, but I just wanted you to understand my concerns’. So she addressed him directly,apologised for her error, and gave a reason for her interruption. This showed expertise in recognising that interruptions are a violation of another person’s speaking rights, and  can cause a person to ‘lose face’ in front of their colleagues.

‘Linguistic expertise is a valuable resource to anyone in a management position, or heading for the top because it can help to create impact and build a strong sense of team. Regardless of gender, managers can be trained to use the techniques of linguistic expertise by being taught some technical knowledge about language use, shown examples of ‘leader best practice’, and by exploring these techniques through basic exercises and role play.

‘Our on-going research is showing that there are fivekeyfeatures comprising linguistic expertise: double-voiced discourse; a linguistic repertoire; linguistic levels of authority; gender counter-talk; and ‘language above, on and below the agenda. According to our study, both men and women would be better managers if they learn this range of linguistic expertise which would teach them how to manage the impact of their language on others. ‘So, to summarise, women do have a harder job than men to be effective through their talk because they need to be more linguistically expert. This takes time, energy and effort and it may be one barrier too many for those women with the potential to reach the top.’

For further press information please contact Sally Finn on 0121 204 4552 or email

There are three stages to the research. Stage One, now complete, focused on the language of female leaders in Judith Baxter’s book below. Currently Stage Two (January 2010 to May 2011), funded by an ESRC grant of £84,000 is a pilot study comparing the language of both male and female leaders (detailed above). Stage Three, at the grant application stage, aims to consider business cultures in more detail to investigate the effects of more male-dominated and more gender-balanced settings on the language of male and female leaders.


Baxter, J. (2010) The Language of Female Leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cameron, D. (2006) The Myth of Mars and Venus. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Holmes, J. (2006) Gendered Talk at Work. Oxford: Blackwell.

Vinnicombe, Sealy, Graham and Doldor (2010) The Female FTSE Report 2010. London: Cranfield University School of Management.