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Feminenglish Part IV: Pointing the Finger

Posted in Law firm practices, Legal Project Management

blameWe’re no sociologists, but it’s not hard to divine the root cause of asymmetrical communication between male and female lawyers: the perks, pleasures and pursuit of power.  Power both creates and reinforces inequality – that’s its purpose, after all.  So as between men and women, isn’t unequal power the inevitable consequence of the whole men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus thing? Have female lawyers simply chosen to play on a power-prejudiced playing field?

We can at least fathom the argument that misaligned gender power in group situations is not a matter of malicious, power-grabbing intent by males. Perhaps it really is the result, by both genders, of “gendered language socialization,” to borrow a phrase from linguistics professor Robin Tolmach Lakoff.

Perhaps, one argument goes, in their communication attitudes and style, a lot of males are simply mimicking the attitudes and behaviors of alpha colleagues who succeed, without conscious felonious motives.  But that takes us back to the issue raised in prior posts of why we should put up with so much communication-related waste and inefficiency. Put differently, in today’s competitive and cost-constrained legal environment, much more commitment must be made to rectifying the legal profession’s crippled communication.

Who’s to Blame?

We know and respect a lot of enlightened male lawyers who can justifiably claim the high road, who respect competency over power, who encourage, mentor, sponsor and champion female colleagues.  These are men who aren’t afraid to delegate power and responsibility to women and who can relate effectively to and collaborate effectively both with female colleagues and the increasing ranks of female general counsel.  These are men who can comfortably acknowledge gender as an evident but secondary characteristic.

So there is some good news, as Anny Tubbs, Chief Business Integrity Officer for Unilever (Belgium) and Unilever’s first general counsel, suggests:

There is more focus on gender balance these days.  We see male and female leaders who are very open about these issues and mindful of providing opportunities for women as well as men.  There are more inspiring female role models, and fewer derogatory comments about professional women – all of which makes our jobs more rewarding.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the male lawyers who are tone-deaf to the dysfunctional inter-gender communication climate in which they work daily, who dismiss the issue as an artifact of whining women having chosen to play where the Big Boys play – or who think that women have chosen to unempower themselves by introducing the tension between practicing law and having children into the male-female power equation.

This is not a group we can expect to respond to exhortations to be more inclusive and less domineering.  Experience suggests that they will not address underlying attitudes about gender and power, so not much is to be gained by simply banging on the unenlightened.

In the middle, however, there are legions of males who deny oppressive intent, who are offended at the suggestion that they are closet misogynists or power-mongers, and who want to be let off the hook.

The Words and the Music

For example, one of these male lawyers recently forwarded us an article from the AOL Men’s Netscape explaining why men don’t listen to women, with the tantalizing subheading, “He really isn’t listening to you! But you won’t believe the reason why.”  Okay, friends, here’s the article’s answer: “When men and women speak, the human brain processes the sounds of those voices differently…The female voice is actually more complex than the male voice…Men have to work hard deciphering what women are saying because they use the auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices.  Men’s brains are not designed to listen to women’s voices.  It’s not the pitch of the woman’s voice, but rather the vibration and number of sound waves that cause the problem.” [emphasis added]

Well, that explains everything: asymmetrical communication is simply due to “differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between men and women.”  As Daffy Duck used to say, “Hah, hah, it is to laugh.”

When we read this article, we thought immediately of the discredited discipline of phrenology, which held that the shape of a person’s head correlated with various attributes, including intelligence and success.  Like the “words-as-music” article, this is a seductively simplistic explanation to a complex, multi-variable phenomenon.

While the research described in this article may in fact be valid, it is absurd to present it as the explanation for asymmetrical communication patterns. We have similar problems with pundits who suggest that poor inter-gender communication is simply a matter of differences in male-female cognitive style.  While such differences, and the stylistic preferences they engender, are well documented, ascribing Feminenglish solely to such differences dodges underlying issues about the dynamics of power.

Moreover, noted executive coach Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn might remind us that there are plenty of respected women leaders who seem to have no difficulty making themselves heard and understood by men. Here we might mention Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Indra Nooyi, Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty, Mary Barra, and the (former and current) political heads of Australia, Brazil, Germany, Austria, Norway, Poland, Ireland, India, Israel,  Canada, Switzerland, The Philippines, South Korea, and New Zealand. Some of these women are strident, some are soft-spoken.  All command respect for their knowledge, judgment and wisdom. These women don’t just merit a place at the table, they own the table.

These accomplished women prove that it is certainly possible to project hard power in male-dominated environments, and that men’s brains can, in fact, hear women.  But the burning question remains: Must all women resort to hard power in order to be taken seriously?

Next: Tactics and techniques for better-balanced communication.

© 2016, Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.