Confidence trick

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has trained some of the world’s most celebrated actors. It also has a commercial arm, Rada in Business, which promises to ‘take our world-leading training and make it work for you in a business context’. Some of the courses it offers are aimed specifically at women. There’s one for recent graduates, entitled ‘Confidence and Presence for Women’, which costs £625 + VAT. For middle managers there’s ‘Impact and Influence for Women’, which costs £1850 + VAT. Then there’s the deluxe version, ‘Executive Presence for Women’, which costs £2800 + VAT for the basic course, and another £1000 if you opt for extras like one-to-one coaching.

What do you get for these eye-watering amounts of money? Here’s what the website says about ‘Confidence and Presence for Women’.

This one day, highly practical course is designed for women entering the workplace. Participants will be taken through the fundamental tools of communication – the body, breath and voice. You will learn how you can adapt these tools in order to come across in a particular way in front of different audiences and in different environments. By looking at status, common body language traits and your own personal brand, you will come to understand the impact that you have on others, and learn how to enhance your impact in order to come across with more confidence and presence.

If you’re not much the wiser after reading this mixture of obvious truisms (people communicate with their voices) and vacuous buzzphrases (‘your personal brand’, ‘enhance your impact’), allow me to direct you to the Times’s story about the course, in which Rada’s client director elaborates on the thinking behind it. Young women entering the workplace, she explains,

are suddenly finding themselves in a very hierarchical environment. Quite often they haven’t been taught about how to hold themselves and make their voices heard. Our courses aim to change that, by giving women the skills they need to empower themselves

But that doesn’t explain why only women need the course. If the problem it’s addressing is the difficulty young professionals have in making the transition from student to corporate life, we might wonder why men—who also enter the workplace fresh from their degree courses—are not thought to have the same skills deficit. (Rada does not offer training for men: it offers general courses and special women’s courses.) Were male students secretly ‘taught how to hold themselves and make their voices heard’ while their female peers were busy gossiping and eating chocolate?

What’s being danced around here is the common-sense understanding that men possess the right skills ‘naturally’, whereas women just as naturally lack them. Quasi-remedial training based on this proposition has been around for at least 30 years: my own collection of course prospectuses goes back to the late 1980s. They all promise to teach working women the secret of assertive/ confident/ effective/ powerful communication (the buzzwords change, the basic formula does not), and the ‘secret’ always turns out to be… that women should behave more like men.

This is also what Rada means by ‘giving women the skills they need to empower themselves’. According to the Times’s report,

Rada has listed ten body language “mistakes, where female leaders unknowingly reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission”. These include using too many head tilts, which imply empathy; taking up less physical space than men; inappropriately and excessively smiling; and failing to interrupt enough.

As a tribute to this ever-popular ‘X Things Women Are Doing Wrong’ formula (a favourite with advice writers many decades before the invention of Buzzfeed), I hereby present my own list of the five reasons why you shouldn’t pay £6.25, let alone £625 + VAT, for a communication training course based on this approach.

  1. These courses rely on myths and stereotypes

I’ve been collecting information on communication training courses since the late 1980s, and I have literally never come across one informed by reputable evidence. Some courses draw on models of communication developed in psychotherapy (like assertiveness and transactional analysis), while others are content to recycle the same zombie facts and misleading generalisations which self-help writers have been peddling for decades.

These claims have acquired their undeserved credibility through constant repetition. We’ve been told so often that women ‘over’-apologise, make all their statements sound like questions and hedge every request with ‘just’, it’s hard for us to believe that this is folklore rather than fact. But in many cases that’s exactly what it is: our beliefs are contradicted by the findings of research. For instance, if you ask people which sex talks more, a majority will answer ‘women’, though there’s a large body of evidence showing that in most contexts the answer is ‘men’. If you ask them who uses uptalk, they’ll name the young women who were its most advanced users 30 years ago, though it has long since ceased to be just a girl thing.

Even if a folk-belief isn’t a myth, it’s sure to be an overgeneralisation. (Do women swear less than men? It depends which women you compare with which men.) It’s impossible to make a one-size-fits-all list of women’s communication problems, because women come in many different varieties. You wouldn’t be happy if a doctor you’d consulted just handed you a generic ‘women’s prescription’ (‘here are some oral contraceptives, anti-anxiety drugs and a leaflet on how to lose weight’). Why would you pay for a communication training course designed on the same principle?

  1. Their advice shows no awareness of the complexity of communicative behaviour

The ‘X Things Women Do Wrong’ approach needs two things to be persuasive. The first, as noted above, is a list of things women allegedly do which are sufficiently familiar to be accepted as fact. The second is a story explaining why those things are wrong. For instance: (1) women say ‘just’ more than men, and (2) saying ‘just’ makes you sound weak and indecisive. What these stories fail to acknowledge, though, is that forms like ‘just’ have multiple functions: they don’t always mean the same thing or do the same job (the ‘just’ in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’, for example, is there to strengthen, not weaken, the command). There is no sensible argument for a blanket ban on ‘just’.

Rada’s suggestion that women should move their heads less to avoid ‘denoting vulnerability and submission’ is in the same category of senseless advice. Whoever came up with it seems to be channelling the wisdom of Body Language for Dummies:

Although men tilt their heads in an upward movement, mostly as a sign of recognition, women tilt their heads to the side in appeasement and as a playful or flirtatious gesture. When a woman tilts her head she exposes her neck, making herself look more vulnerable and less threatening.

But researchers who don’t write for dummies have pointed out that ‘movements of the head can participate in a diverse field of meanings’. Among other things, they can function ‘as signals for turn-taking; as semantic and syntactic boundary markers; to locate discourse referents; or to communicate meanings like inclusivity, intensification, and uncertainty’. Head-movements, in other words, are part of the apparatus we use to manage the complex demands of face-to-face conversation. We generally do this without conscious reflection: advising women to make a conscious effort not to do it is both ridiculous and probably futile (next time you’re having a conversation, try suppressing your normal head-movements and see how long you can keep it up.)

  1. They assume that men’s behaviour is always preferable to women’s

Advice on communication is full of statements about what women do too much or not enough of. Rada’s advice is a case in point: it charges women with using ‘too many’ head-tilts, smiling ‘excessively’, and—my particular favourite—‘failing to interrupt enough’. How much interrupting is enough, and enough for what? What is this mysterious mark that women are forever overshooting or falling short of?

I think the answer is obvious: it’s men’s behaviour (or more exactly, what the advice-givers imagine to be men’s behaviour). But if so, that raises another question: what’s so great about men’s behaviour? How do we get from ‘men interrupt more frequently’, or ‘men use fewer head-movements implying empathy’ to ‘men are better communicators’? The logic here can only be that any behaviour associated with men should be preferred to any behaviour associated with women. That’s why women are ‘empowered’ by imitating men.

This approach to women’s empowerment seems to be trying to do for women what elocution lessons did for the upwardly-mobile a century ago: ‘get rid of your vulgar accent/ your excessive head-movements, and you too can be accepted into the ranks of the socially privileged’. But apart from demonstrating the political difference between ‘women’s empowerment’ and feminism (a movement whose aim is to challenge men’s collective power rather than just enabling a few ambitious women to share it), this strategy has a practical flaw…

  1. It ignores evidence that the same behaviour is judged differently in men and women

It can’t be assumed that a woman who talks like a man will be treated like a man: we have plenty of evidence that judgments of linguistic performance are affected by the identity of the performer. The same message may be interpreted and evaluated very differently depending on whether it comes from an adult or a child, a boss or a subordinate, a woman or a man.

In an earlier post I mentioned the case of Catherine Nichols, an aspiring novelist who sent out the same writing sample under two different names, her own name and a fictitious male name. Not only did she get far more interest from readers who believed she was a man, she also found they described her writing differently: it was ‘lyrical’ when she was female, and ‘well-constructed’ when she was male. You might also recall Kieran Snyder’s analysis of a sample of tech industry performance reviews, which found that most women, and almost no men, were criticised for their ‘abrasive’ manner. This perception of women who work in male-dominated environments as ‘abrasive’ is another example of the phenomenon I’ve discussed in recent posts about politicians: displays of female authority provoke resentment. Several experimental studies have found that for women, judgments of authority are negatively correlated with judgments of likability.

Instructing women to behave more like men (interrupt more, smile less, stop apologising, etc., etc.) takes no account of this evidence that women are judged by different standards. They are caught between a rock (‘your speech lacks authority and no one listens to you!’) and a hard place (‘you’re too abrasive and no one likes you!’). I’m not suggesting that women are always better off clinging to the rock. But teaching them to talk like men is not going to solve all their problems.

  1. Fixing women is not the same as challenging sexism

Most communication courses for women are bad in the ways I’ve already discussed, but even if I found one that avoided the usual pitfalls, I’d still have a problem with the basic concept. The reason these courses appeal to corporate clients is that they don’t challenge—in fact they pander to—a particular understanding of what causes gender inequality. It’s not that anyone’s trying to keep women down, it’s just that too many women aren’t achieving their full potential because of a lack of confidence and self-belief. This account makes both sexism and sexists disappear: it’s all about fixing women by sending them on courses.

In reality, of course, there is no shortage of sexists in the corporate world, but their behaviour, unlike women’s, is not regarded as a problem. They don’t get sent on courses featuring topics like ‘how to listen to women’, ‘resisting the temptation to mansplain’ and ‘why you don’t have to speak if you’ve got nothing to add’. Of course they don’t: no one would offer a course based on such an insulting premise, and no man would agree to attend one. But on reflection, is the premise women’s courses are based on any less insulting? They’re all designed around what women allegedly lack: authority, impact, confidence, presence. (What are you if you ‘lack presence’, a void?) Is this not just code for ‘women are not as good as men’?

The thing I find most intolerable, though, is the way training courses exploit the idea that women are their own worst enemies. One of the many glowing testimonials on Rada’s website says: ‘This course is a must for anyone who has ever held themselves back’. So, women hold themselves back, and women must learn to empower themselves. That definition of the problem may be the biggest problem of all.

Thanks to @ms_peaceweaver for drawing my attention to the Rada course.

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