As a brand strategist, my role at work is to uncover and create what we at CBX call “shared meaning.” From a visual perspective, it means understanding semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. And from a verbal perspective, it’s all about linguistics—the use of words, language and context.
So when I was offered corporate coaching sessions (at a different organization) a few years back, I was eager to learn how my own leadership style was reflected back to others.
During our penultimate session, my coach said he (yes, reader, it was a ‘he’) had a revelation to share. “I get it now! You’re the mom of the office!”
As the only female lead at the time (and real-life mom) I had incredibly mixed reactions to it at the time. DAMN RIGHT I’m a great mom. But at work, what assumptions did that come with? And why did he (a middle-aged white cis man) jump to this conclusion?
Turns out, not only is there a ‘language’ we use in the workplace, but a series of perceptions and expectations surrounding its use. In short, Baxter argues that there are two fundamental ‘discourse’ styles—one that’s transactional and pragmatic, another that’s transformational and relational. The latter style, one that ”refers to motivating subordinates to transform their self-interests to group-centered goals” is the tricky one.
As Baxter sat in on boardroom meetings and conference room get togethers, she observed that while “men and women use language to ‘do leadership’ effectively in similar ways, using both language styles to accomplish their goals . . . women leaders were very aware of how they needed to use language strategically in order to adjust for their marginalized status.”
You might think, “My organization doesn’t make me feel marginalized!” And that’s fantastic. But there’s another layer to this onion to consider. And it has to do with meaning.
Baxter goes on to explain there are two kinds of corporations: gender-divided, “in which the language of female leadership is expected to be supportive and cooperative, characteristic of stereotypical female features,” and gender-multiple, one which is more fluid and accepting of what Baxter calls “double-voiced discourse.”
In short, it’s not just about what voice and leadership style you use, it’s about what people expect you to excel in or lean into.
Case in point: a recent conversation with a colleague, who said, “I’ve struggled with how to ensure people pay attention to what I’m saying without them thinking I’m emotional.” Before reading this study, I would have thought that perhaps she just leans into a ‘relational’ style. But now I’m thinking maybe it’s the people around her who just interpreted her transactional language and approach as something quite different from what she intended.
So what do we do with this insight? How do we move towards more gender-multiple organizations, ones that encourage and support a spectrum of approaches — even beyond the binary? Hopefully, we’ve become more enlightened in the ten years since this book was published. And given that in 2019, 27% of S&P 500 board members were women, we’re on the right track. But I’m reminded of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous response to the question “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” (The answer: “When there are nine.”)
Awareness, of course, is the first step; knowing that we’re continually reading meaning into our interactions (even more so now on our Zoom calls) and that our organizations of may operate with ‘gender-divided’ or ‘gender-multiple’ expectations.
The second step? Creating gender-multiple cultures that respect relational skills. In Baxter’s words, “female leaders of gender-multiple corporations are in a position to support their junior women colleagues, to skillfully use relational linguistic strategies to contest negative gendered discourses.” So using the skills formerly ‘gendered’ as feminine can help us promote cultures that are more diverse and open.
And when women are respected for a full spectrum of leadership styles, both men and women will flourish in finding their own voices. It makes me almost wish I’d asked my coach which kind of mom he thought I was.