The Communication Divide
In recent decades, employers have made a conscious effort to bring diversity into the workplace. They’ve made progress, at least when it comes to gender; today’s entry-level workforce is 46 percent female (Waller). Though the numbers are promising, they don’t reveal the culture gap that remains even in the presence of equal representation. Men and women tend to work, ask questions and supervise differently. The distance between the two communication styles can cause problems in the workplace, especially since the majority of corporate culture is decidedly masculine.
Communication styles are established at a young age. Through socialization, children learn what is expected of their gender and how their gender tends to communicate (Merchant 27). This socialization often reinforces stereotypical gender roles; e.g. women are sensitive, mild, and warm while men are dominant, ambitious, and rational. This socialization sets the foundation for one’s adulthood interpersonal and leadership style. Thus, studies show that “while women use communication as a tool to enhance social connections and create relationships”, men use it to establish hierarchical relationships and achieve concrete outcomes (Merchant 17). As the result of early childhood models, women tend to communicate in a feminine way, with softness, sensitivity, and timidity, while men communicate with assertiveness, directness, and self-preservation.
In the workplace, this means that even in leadership positions, women tend to talk subtly and cautiously when supervising subordinates (Nair). Since men communicate with less nuance, they may misunderstand women’s more cautious approaches. Women also tend to ask more questions in order to show interest and strengthen bonds, while men ask questions only to collect information (Nair). Men seek time alone to solve a problem, while women seek companionship and support, and when it comes to body language, women are more expressive. Lastly, women are less likely than men to interrupt when someone else is talking, and they are more likely to weaken their statements due to a fear of being wrong (Merchant 18). Due to ingrained communication styles, two individuals can approach the same situation very differently in the office.
However, corporate culture tends to reward masculine traits, while feminine traits can undermine professional success. In fact, according to an article by The Wall Street Journal, men tend to feel confident in their route to professional success, while women perceive a steeper climb (Waller). There is some truth to this perception; at entry level, men are 30 percent more likely than women to be promoted to management roles. Part of this can be attributed to the overall masculine style of corporate culture. The fact that women speak in a tentative, cautious manner can make them appear less confident, putting them at a disadvantage when considered for leadership roles (Merchant 18). Stereotypical male traits, like rationality and ambition, align with the traits that a typical CEO would embody, whereas stereotypical female traits, like sensitivity and sweetness, tend to align with supportive or nurturing roles (Merchant 28). This contributes to different outcomes for men and women in terms of leadership roles in the workplace.
Though there is an imbalance of masculine and feminine communication styles in many companies, that doesn’t mean one style is better than the other. That also doesn’t mean that one style is better suited for corporate leadership. Often, a balancing of both styles is the most beneficial for the individual and for others. When you strive to understand and welcome different ways of communicating, you strengthen your professional performance and interpersonal relationships.
What’s your communication style? Do you relate to a feminine or masculine style, or are you somewhere in the middle?
- Merchant, Karima. “How Men And Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communication Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles.” Claremont McKenna College, Claremont Colleges, 2012, pp. 16–28.
- Nair, Reshmi. “Male and Female Communication Styles in the Workplace.” WiseStep, WiseStep, 27 Feb. 2018, content.wisestep.com/male-female-communication-styles-workplace/.
- Waller, Nikki. “How Men & Women See the Workplace Differently.” The Wall Street Journal, 27 Sept. 2016.