Time to tackle another construct: the different ways men and women communicate with one another.
As is typical when I write about issues of social constructs that involve power disparities, privilege, and oppression, my words are aimed primarily at guys like myself: straight white men. I would not presume to explain these issues to women–they are already well aware.
Getting right to the point: there is a major difference in how men and women communicate and conduct themselves in mixed-gender venues, almost regardless of context. Be it in person, online, at work, or in a leisure setting, men tend to approach communication one way, while women approach it another way. Men are direct, even aggressive and hostile. Men speak with conviction and certitude, often unbothered if their statements offend or make others bristle. Women soften their statements, allow for more ambiguity, avoid direct confrontation, and try to spare the feelings of others.
These are obviously generalizations. Not all men act this way, nor do all women. But these communication styles are disproportionately represented as described above. Given how these topics often go, you know what’s coming next: there’s nothing biological about this. It’s all about socialization.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered her now-famous description of how women are trained:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
This comes through in communication, as well. Women are expected to defer to men, even in situations where women have superior knowledge and authority. Men are more likely to speak with utmost confidence in their statements, regardless of veracity. And then, on the occasions when a woman tasks the risk of correcting a man, she must then reassure him and preserve his ego–she may stand up to him, but she must still place his feelings and pride above her own needs.
If you are a man, think about the women in your life and the interactions you’ve had with them. Has anything like this happened to you? Do you find how women communicate (or don’t communicate) confusing? This difference in socialization has a lot to do with why.
You can even see these characteristics play out at the highest levels of public discourse. Political blog 538 compiled a list of the most common phrases used by Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. A friend of mine took that list and made note of how both candidates qualify their statements:
The blue outlines show statements of certitude–“I know,” “We must,” and so forth. The red outlines indicate hedges–“I think,” “I believe,” etc. They acknowledge ambiguity.
Notice that one of Clinton’s most oft-used phrases is “I think it’s important.” She’s not giving commands, or telling anyone what they must do or should think. She is communicating what she thinks is important. This is a very clear example of how women are trained to soften their statements in ways men aren’t. Male politicians rarely bother to qualify. They will tell you directly what they know, what must happen, what will be done. This is not at all limited to the political sphere. Rather, it is commonplace in daily life.
These differences don’t just lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications. They have real effects on women’s careers and workplace treatment. A woman can offer an idea–imagine a new idea for a product in a business–and it may not be taken seriously, until it’s offered up (perhaps a bit more forcefully) a man. Men will steal women’s ideas right in front of them, and nobody (except women, that is) seems to notice. Women are also placed in a double-bind when it comes to seeking promotions and raises. If they are too passive to ask for anything, they probably won’t get it. But when they do ask, they’re likely to be penalized for that, too. It’s a no-win. This happens even when it’s a woman asking another woman for a status boost, since women in managerial positions face social structures and norms that all but demand they hold up these sexist disparities. It’s ultimately a social (and corporate) world built by men, based on how men tend to be socialized, and designed to serve the needs and desires of men. Merely letting women in the door isn’t enough–it’s not even adequate as a bare minimum.
What can you (and I) do about this, then? Men are, after all, the ones not listening, the ones stealing ideas, the ones silencing women who dare to speak up. It should be self-explanatory, then: listen. Think. Listen some more. Keep listening. Then see what you can do to break down these barriers.
Women are not weak. They’re not incompetent, nor ineffectual. It’s living in a society that constantly says they are that gives that impression, and the old saying holds true: if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. We’ve believed in these lies for too long.