Women told to speak their minds in boardrooms

Women in business
Women in business

26 July 2011

Language used by female executives in meetings can harm their career prospects according to Aston University research.

Women – including those who work in senior positions for some of the country's leading firms – are held back from reaching the very highest levels in business because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high pressure meetings.

Aston University linguistic expert, Dr Judith Baxter led an 18-month study into the speaking patterns of men and women at meetings in seven major well-known companies, including two in the FTSE-100. She has recently been interviewed by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and by the BBC World Service about her latest findings. Listen to Dr Baxter's interview on BBC iPlayer.

The team’s research found that women were four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humour and speak indirectly or apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with board members in order to avoid conflict. And it doesn't always work. 

This is the first time scientists have compared how men and women use language to achieve their business goals in executive meetings in the UK. The study was conducted in seven UK national and multinational companies, and examined 14 executive teams and 150 board directors or senior positions.

Speaking in an interview to The Observer, Dr Baxter said such language, which the study describes as "double voice discourse" (DvD), was used because women were often heavily outnumbered on boards. As a result, senior women engage in a kind of linguistic second guessing, adjusting their language to make the right impact on colleagues. Examples included beginning comments with phrases such as "I am probably speaking out of turn, but…" and "Sorry to cut across you like that but…"

When employed effectively, this kind of language could be a useful tool to manipulate those around them, she claimed, but self-deprecation and an apologetic style were risky because striking a wrong note could lead to appearing defensive and weak.

Dr Baxter said: "I found very few differences between men and female leadership language, but there was this one key difference, which I call double-voice discourse. Women use this when they are facing criticism or when handling conflict. While men tend to direct and straight talking and if they are confrontational it is regarded as nothing personal, women avoid being directly confrontational and use a range of strategies to preserve a range of alliances, if not friendships, to achieve their agenda.

"I am not saying that women are more sharing and caring than men. I am not saying they are more altruistic. They are doing it to achieve their own agenda."

Dr Baxter added that the difficulty in mastering such language not only made it difficult for women to progress, but may put a lot of women off aiming for the top positions.

According to the annual Female FTSE Board report from Cranfield University School of Management, the proportion of women on the boards of FTSE-100 companies is only 12.5%, a marginal rise on the previous year.

Listen to the full Radio 4 interview on BBC iPlayer