Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.

 

*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research. 

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One word, two words, pink words, blue words

girl words

Once upon a time, someone had the bright idea of making sets of fridge magnets for young children learning to read and write. All the children were following the same school curriculum, but since the designers knew they came in two distinct varieties–some were girls and some were boys–they decided to make two different versions of the product. The girls’ version featured words like ‘make-up’, ‘bunnies’ and ‘love’, while boys were given words like ‘money’, ‘car’ and ‘dirt’.  boy wordsTo make sure everyone would know which words were suitable for which children, the designers mounted the magnets on colour-coded pink and blue card.

Parents expressed their gratitude in the reviews they posted on Amazon. ‘Thank goodness for this product!’ wrote one:

For a while now I’ve been concerned about my little girl – she has been showing an increased interest in things which are clearly just for boys, such as monsters and climbing. I have even seen her on occasion use money, ride a bike or go swimming. This product has been a godsend as it has allowed me to say to her once and for all: “These are boys’ things and they do not concern you.”

Another declared himself ‘relieved that the [boys’] set excludes any words that might relate to any form of intellectual pursuit or emotion (other than fear)’.

Not all the reviews were so sarcastic, but almost none of them were positive: most people who left comments were critical of the magnets, and some called on Amazon to stop selling them. The crude stereotyping struck many as particularly out of place in a product that was meant to be educational. As one commenter put it, ‘Words are universal. Vocabulary is not gender-specific unless we make it so’.

But in reality, of course, we do make it so. By repeatedly using certain words about certain kinds of people, we create patterns which are more or less strongly gender-marked. The words are not ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they can only be used by or about girls and women or boys and men. It’s more that we’ve learned to associate them with either femininity or masculinity. The adjectives ‘feisty’, ‘petite’ and ‘shrill’, for instance, are so strongly coded as ‘feminine’ words, applying them to a male may be taken as a comment on his (lack of) masculinity. In most cases the gender-coding is subtler, but it’s still part of our tacit knowledge.

You can test this out for yourself by looking at the wordlists I’ve reproduced below:

List 1

active, adventurous, analytic, assertive, battle, boast, challenge, champion, confident, courage, decision, decisive, defend, determine, dominant, driven, fearless, fight, force, greedy, headstrong, impulsive, independent, individual, intellect, lead, logic, objective, opinion, outspoken, persist, principle, reckless, self-confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient

List 2

agree, affectionate, collaborate, commit, communal, compassion, connect, considerate, cooperate, depend, emotional, empathy, enthusiasm, feel, gentle, honest, inclusive, interpersonal, interdependent, kind, kinship, loyal, modesty, nurturing, pleasant, polite, quiet, responsible, sensitive, submissive, support, sympathetic, tender, together, trust, understand, warm

There are no words on either of these lists which could not, in principle, be used in reference to either sex. But the words on List 1 have more masculine associations, while the ones on List 2 are more associated with femininity. If I described some gender-unspecified person as ‘dominant, driven and fearless’ you would be likely to imagine a man; if I described them as ‘nurturing, pleasant and polite’ you would be likely to imagine a woman.

One striking difference between the two lists is that a lot of the ‘masculine’ words seem to be describing leaders, achievers and rugged individualists, whereas most of the ‘feminine’ words describe helpers, supporters and carers. This contrast figures so prominently, you might suspect me of taking the words straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But in fact, I took them from a webpage explaining a piece of software called the Gender Decoder for Job Ads. And the source from which the software designer took them was a 2011 article in a psychology journal, entitled ‘Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality’.

The authors of this study began by looking for gender-marked vocabulary in the job ads on two popular Canadian listings sites. Their sample included ads for both male-dominated occupations like plumbing, engineering and computing ,and female-dominated occupations like nursing, early childhood education and HR. Their analysis showed that the male-field ads used significantly more masculine-coded words.

So far, you might think, so unsurprising: but the kicker is in the second stage of the research, which involved presenting male and female subjects with ads for various positions (they included male-dominated, female-dominated and ‘neutral’ fields) which had been manipulated to make the wording either strongly ‘masculine’ or strongly ‘feminine’. For instance, one version of an ad for an administrative assistant stated that the company was looking for someone ‘dependable and reliable’, while the other specified that the applicant should be ‘independent and self-reliant’. Subjects were asked to say how appealing they found each position, and whether they felt they belonged in the role.

The main finding was that women saw jobs as less appealing, and were less likely to think they belonged, when an ad relied heavily on masculine-coded vocabulary. (Men’s perceptions were less affected by the choice of words: they did find ‘feminine’ ads less appealing than ‘masculine’ ones, but the effect was very slight.) The researchers concluded that the wording of job ads is a factor affecting women’s willingness to apply. The issue isn’t just that women see themselves as unsuited to particular kinds of work: even when they have the right qualifications, the perception that they won’t fit in cropped-c47620c5e92a01104c2e9b60258cc3fb.gif is reinforced by ads that use masculine-coded language (e.g. ‘we are looking for a self-reliant individual who is driven to achieve results’), and can be countered by ads that substitute more ‘feminine’ terms (e.g., we are looking for a committed, responsible team-member who is sensitive to clients’ needs)

This finding prompted the development of the Gender Decoder for Job Ads, a tool designed to help organisations avoid gender bias in recruiting. It works rather like the Gender Genie, which I discussed in an earlier post: if you paste the text of a job ad into it, it will calculate the relative proportions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words, and on that basis tell you whether your ad has an overall bias. I came across it on a blog maintained by the UK Parliamentary Digital Service, which published a guest-post earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the bro code‘. The writer argued that ‘removing masculine words from job adverts is a quick and easy step to attract more women’. This view seems to be gaining ground: Iris Bohnet, for instance, the author of an influential book called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, describes the wording of job ads as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for those who want to reduce bias and build diverse, inclusive workplaces.

My own feelings about this approach are mixed. I certainly don’t dispute that there are bits of the ‘bro code’ which we could and should dispense with: they hang so low their knuckles are dragging on the ground. For instance, according to the Harvard Business School’s recruitment blog, the use of ‘ninja’ as a job title in the tech sector increased by 400% between 2012 and 2016.  By all means let’s stop advertising for ‘ninjas’ (unless they’re being employed as role-players in an exhibit about feudal Japan). And while we’re at it, we could cut out the kind of meaningless guff which so many job ads are full of–corporate clichés like ‘we strive to be competitive in a demanding global marketplace’, which increase the masculine vocabulary quotient without adding anything of substance. cropped-job_ad_buzzwords2.jpg

But while I’m all for getting rid of what’s unnecessary and offputting (or in the case of ‘ninja’, idiotic), I’m always wary of approaches to sexism which treat changing language as a panacea. Language is rarely the root cause of the problem: it’s the outward and visible symptom of a deeper cultural disease. In this case, for instance, the problem that has to be tackled isn’t just that the language of job ads is inadvertently alienating women. The deeper problem is the gender-code itself: it’s the fact that words like ‘analytic’ and ‘logical’ are generally understood (by women as much as men) to denote ‘masculine’ qualities. That’s got nothing to do with the words themselves, and everything to do with our cultural beliefs about what men and women are like (‘these are boys’ things and they do not concern you’).

Just substituting ‘feminine’ for ‘masculine’ words in job ads does nothing to address this deeper problem. Even if it persuades more women to apply for jobs in male-dominated fields, it does so in a way that leaves the codes themselves intact. It says to women, in effect, ‘you may think you don’t belong in this job, but actually you do, because it isn’t really about leadership and competition, it’s about stuff women are good at, like teamwork and collaboration’. Is that challenging gender stereotypes or is it pandering to them?

Iris Bohnet, the author of What Works, might respond that I’m missing the point here. The evidence suggests that changing the language of job ads ‘works’: it helps to diversify the applicant pool for jobs. So what if people still mentally put words, and the attributes they denote, into pink and blue boxes? ‘It’s easier’, Bohnet says, ‘to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets’.

As I said before, my feelings about this are mixed: it’s not that I can’t see the force of Bohnet’s argument. But in the end I think feminism does have to be about changing mindsets rather than just devising procedures to work around them. And while I realise there’s no quick fix for sexist thinking, I’ve been alive for long enough to know that change is possible. Back in 1962, when I was learning to read, no parent would have objected to those pink and blue fridge magnet sets. Today, many parents find them objectionable. It’s been a long, slow process, and it isn’t finished yet. But if researchers 100 years from now discover that ‘logical’ is still a blue word and ‘compassionate’ is still a pink word, my ghost will be seriously disappointed.

 

 

 

‘Men, shut up for your rights!’

If you haven’t spent the last decade living on another planet, I’m sure you will recognise the following sequence of events:

  1. A powerful man says something egregiously sexist, either in a public forum or in a private conversation which is subsequently leaked.
  2. There is an outpouring of indignation on social media.
  3. The mainstream media take up the story and the criticism gets amplified.
  4. The powerful man announces that he is stepping down.
  5. His critics claim this as a victory and the media move on—until another powerful man says another egregiously sexist thing, at which point the cycle begins again.

The most recent high-profile target for this ritual shaming was David Bonderman, a billionaire venture capitalist and member of Uber’s board of directors. It’s no secret that Uber has a serious sexism problem. Following a number of discrimination and harassment claims from former employees, the company commissioned what turned out to be a damning report on its corporate culture. At a meeting called to discuss the report, Arianna Huffington (who at the time was Uber’s only female director) cited research which suggested that putting one woman on a board increased the likelihood that more women would join. At which point Bonderman interjected: ‘actually what it shows is that it’s likely to be more talking’.

To call this remark ill-judged does not do it justice. In the space of 12 words it managed to (a) slander women collectively by recycling the idea they talk incessantly (when in reality, as a ton of evidence shows, it’s men who do more talking in mixed-sex interactions); (b) insult the only woman on the board by dismissing the point she had just made; and (c) undermine Uber’s attempt to look as though it was taking sexism seriously. What was needed from David Bonderman was a moment of silence—a moment when he considered his options and took an executive decision not to say what he was thinking. But that level of self-restraint was apparently beyond him. And he’s by no means the only powerful man who has this problem.

A few days before Bonderman’s comment made headlines, the trade publication PRWeek had held its annual, ickily named ‘Hall of Femme’ event celebrating women’s contributions to the PR industry.  This year, the organisers decided that what the event really needed was an all male panel, at which a group of male industry leaders would share their thoughts about women in PR. One of these men, Richard Edelman, made a particularly original and constructive suggestion: if women want to be heard they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’.

Once again, you have to marvel at the apparent inability of powerful men to practise the same kind of judicious self-censorship the rest of us routinely engage in. How could anyone with a functioning brain have prepared a speech containing this pearl of wisdom without ever thinking, ‘hang on, might there be something a bit dodgy about a male speaker on an all-male panel telling women they need to speak up?’ It’s even more ironic that this PR disaster was perpetrated by a leading PR professional, who apparently didn’t see it coming. Induct that man into PRWeek’s Hall of Shemme!

You can’t resign from a conference panel, so in this case the ritual only got as far as stage (2), public indignation. David Bonderman, however, was obliged to fall on his sword. His resignation statement took the form that’s become standard on these occasions: (1) apologise for causing offence; (2) deny that you really meant what everyone thinks you meant (one perennially popular version of this denial is ‘my remarks were taken out of context’, but Bonderman went for another cliché, ‘the way it came across was the opposite of what I intended’); (3) say that you’re stepping down because the controversy has become a ‘distraction’ (‘I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud’).

Every part of this is bullshit. The belated apology is rendered even less convincing by the accompanying denial of prejudiced intent, and the form of the denial adds insult to injury:  Bonderman appears to be claiming that when he said women talk too much, what he really meant was that women don’t talk too much—an interpretation even Humpty Dumpty might think far-fetched. (More likely he meant that he was joking, but that’s also an insult, implying that his critics have no sense of humour.)  The obligatory reference to ‘distraction’ is itself a distraction—very obviously in this case, where the issue from which Bonderman’s sexism had allegedly ‘distracted’ was—well, sexism.  The purpose of this formula is damage limitation: it’s an attempt to contain the criticism and draw a line under the affair. ‘OK, a rogue individual said something offensive, but he’s accepted his mistake and done the honourable thing. Problem solved. Time for the circus to move on’. Until the next time it happens, which will probably be within a week.

Increasingly I find myself wondering what good this ritual does. To me it doesn’t feel like much of a victory when a man like David Bonderman resigns: it feels more like cutting off the Hydra’s head when you know the Hydra will just grow a new one. If you really want to change a culture, you have to change the behaviour of the people in the culture: just replacing one director or CEO with another who’s cut from the same cloth is never going to solve the problem.

You might say, but at least Bonderman was held to account: he wasn’t just permitted to carry on as if nothing had happened. But you could equally argue that resigning is the easy option. Rather than having to change his behaviour, the offender just cuts his losses and walks away.

One day I’d like to see a powerful man in this position taking real responsibility for his actions by dispensing with the usual boilerplate and saying something more like this:

The asinine remark I made at yesterday’s meeting has prompted many people to call for my resignation. But instead of stepping down, I’ve decided I should try to step up.

For as long as I can remember, I have been given a license by the people around me to say whatever came into my head at any given moment, regardless of whether it was on point and with no thought for its effect on other people. But I’ve now realised that needs to change, and I have hired a consultant to conduct a year-long intervention. One of her responsibilities will be to interrupt me every time I begin to speak in a meeting. She will also arrange a series of corporate events at which male attendees will be obliged to listen to mainly all-female panels while having no opportunity to speak. In the Q&A men will be permitted to raise their hands, but the Chair will operate a policy of ignoring them.  A couple of panels will feature one token man: in those cases a woman will be tasked with talking over their contributions, then explaining at length what they’ve just attempted to say.

I know I can’t recreate other people’s experience of being ignored and disrespected from cradle to grave, but I hope even a small taste of my own medicine will make me less of an arse in future. Then perhaps I will have something to contribute to the creation of a culture we can be proud of.

This fantasy non-resignation speech was partly inspired by the title of a lecture once given by the artist Grayson Perry: ‘Men, sit down for your rights!’  In his book about masculinity, The Descent of Man, Perry argues that men—especially middle aged, middle class white ones—are lacking in self-awareness because they have gone through life taking their privileged position for granted. Being treated as the cultural default means never having to interrogate your own behaviour. But in a world which is moving towards greater equality, where maleness can no longer be regarded as an automatic ticket to the top, men will have to develop more humility and learn to, as Perry puts it, ‘sit down’.

One crucial element in this metaphorical sitting down will be learning to (literally) shut up. Because there is no form of privilege men deploy more frequently, more casually and more unselfconsciously than their assumed Divine Right to Talk—to monologue, to mansplain, to interrupt, to say whatever’s on their minds without considering the consequences.  This behaviour is everyday sexism at its most basic: it’s even commoner than catcalling, and its effects are felt by women of all ages, races and classes. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the most popular way of addressing it involves telling women they should act more like men. Women are constantly exhorted to speak up. But who is making speeches telling men to pipe down?

Some mixed organisations are trying to grasp this nettle. Not long ago, for instance, a journalist told me about a small political party in Denmark which had introduced a rule to even out the distribution of speaking turns at its meetings. A male speaker cannot speak straight after another man, but must wait until after a woman has taken a turn.  Yes, there’s a degree of artificiality about this arrangement, but that’s true of any rule-governed system for managing the floor in a group—Roberts’s Rules of Order, or Parliamentary procedure, or the rules feminists of my generation sometimes followed in women’s groups to prevent the most confident and articulate women from dominating the discussion. Without analysing the evidence it’s hard to say how well the Danish rule works in practice (if anyone reading this can supply some data I’d love to hear from you), but even if it works imperfectly, its existence will at least be making people pay more conscious attention to their own behaviour.

The absence of self-awareness that Grayson Perry talks about is one of the hallmarks of the true alpha-male, and it is never more visible than when one of them is forced to apologise for some casually bigoted comment. These gaffemeisters always seem astonished by the outcry their words have provoked–it’s as if it had never occurred to them before that anyone might think they were arses. The sports star who used the N-word protests that he hasn’t got a racist bone in his body; President Donald ‘grab em by the pussy’ Trump declares that ‘no one respects women more than I do’. I don’t think they are actually lying, in the sense of saying something they believe to be false: I think they genuinely can’t see the world from anyone else’s point of view.

The question all this raises is why we go on putting these self-regarding solipsists in positions of power and influence, by choosing them as our leaders, our role-models, our cultural icons. Occasionally we punish one of them, but mostly we continue to reward them–if we didn’t, they wouldn’t keep reproducing themselves. In my youth they seemed like dinosaurs on the verge of becoming extinct; but 40 years later they are more powerful, and more popular, than ever. From Russia to the USA, and from the Philippines to Turkey, their star is once again in the ascendant. Mere indignation, however righteous, is not enough to turn the tide: it might even be as much of a distraction as the gaffes that set it off.

 

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.

Crap apps and female email

Between 1997 and 2001, users of Microsoft Office were provided with an ‘assistant’ in the form of an animated paperclip. ‘Clippy’, as this character was affectionately known, popped up whenever you typed ‘Dear…’ into Word, to make the helpful observation: ‘hey! It looks as if you’re writing a letter!’ To which most people in the world had the same response: ‘of course I’m writing a letter you annoying piece of shit, now sod off and let me get on with it’. Eventually Microsoft got the message, and Clippy got the sack.

I was reminded of Clippy this week when I read about a new Chrome extension called ‘Just Not Sorry’. If this product came with a pop-up assistant, it would say: ‘hey! It looks as if you’re writing a female email!’

I’m not kidding: Just Not Sorry is designed to help women avoid weak and powerless language in emails. It’s like a spelling or grammar checker, except its targets are the same bunch of female linguistic sins we’ve been hearing about continuously all year. ‘Just’. ‘Sorry’. ‘Actually’. Er, what? I hadn’t heard complaints about ‘actually’ before, but according to the language police (women’s section) you should steer clear of it because it ‘communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say’.

If you download Just Not Sorry (and the developers are hoping to persuade 10,000 women to download it before New Year), it will underline these items (and other ‘self-demeaning phrases’ like ‘I’m no expert’) whenever they appear in your Gmail messages, thus allowing you to delete or rephrase before you demean yourself in public. If you’re not sure what the problem is,  you can hover your mouse over the underlined words and see what Slate describes as

explanatory quotes from women like Tara Mohr (“‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power”) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett (“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership”).

I’m not sure these quotes really merit the label ‘explanatory’. To me they look more like dogmatic assertions, unsupported by either argument or evidence. ‘“Just” demeans what you have to say’. ‘Using sorry frequently…makes you appear unfit for leadership’. What are these sweeping claims based on, and why should we pay any attention to them?

Maybe we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that they’re taken from the work of ‘women like Tara Mohr and Sylvia Ann Hewlett’. Who? I’d never heard of Tara Mohr, but her website informs me she has an MBA and a coaching business. Sylvia Ann Hewlett (who I have heard of, because she’s got form in this area) is a trained economist who runs a non-profit organization called the Center for Talent Innovation. Unsurprisingly, neither has any particular linguistic expertise. What they say about language mines the same rich seam of bullshit I spent a fair bit of the summer criticising.

The claim that ‘just’ ‘shrinks your power’ was popularized earlier this year by former Google executive Ellen Petry Leanse. As I pointed out then, what it overlooks is the fact that words like ‘just’ have a range of functions: you can’t just [sic] assert that they are ‘demeaning’ in every context. (As I also pointed out, Nike didn’t choose ‘Just Do It’ as a slogan because they thought it sounded pleasingly weak and powerless.) Even when ‘just’ is being used as a hedge (i.e., to make a point less forceful or more tentative), the commonest reason for that is simply to be polite; and politeness is more strategic than demeaning.

Only the other day, I got an email that read:

Sorry to disturb you over the holiday period, but I’m just trying to firm up the schedule, and I wondered if you’d had time to check your diary yet. Have a great new year and get back to me when you have a chance.

I didn’t think, ‘oh, this guy is really shrinking his power’ (yes, I did say ‘guy’: writing ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ in emails is not an exclusively female habit). I thought, ‘well, that’s considerate, making clear he knows it’s Christmas and I might have better things to do than help him with his schedule’. And since he had been considerate, I figured I’d return the favour: I replied the same day.

If he’d left out all the ‘self-undermining’ politeness features, the email would have looked more like this:

I’m trying to firm up the schedule, so please check your diary and get back to me as soon as possible.

The style may be more businesslike, but I’d have read this version as accusatory and borderline hostile (‘hey, I’ve got a schedule to make, why haven’t you given me the information I need?’). And I’d have registered my displeasure by putting it in the pending file until we were both officially back at work. So, politeness can pay dividends: ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ FTW.

Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works, the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use. If women use the word ‘sorry’ more than men (and by the way, that’s a genuine ‘if’: I’m not aware of any compelling evidence they do), that can only mean that women are over-using ‘sorry’, apologizing when it isn’t necessary or appropriate. The alternative interpretation—that men are under-using ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it —is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up. As I said back in the summer, the assumption is always that ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

The reason for this is simple. If your business is peddling advice to women, you have to begin by persuading women they’ve got a problem, and that the cause of the problem is their own behaviour. If that’s not the case—if, for instance, the problem has more to do with other people’s attitudes or with structural inequality—then telling women to behave differently is not going to fix very much.

But old hands like Sylvia Ann Hewlett have a remarkable ability to plough on regardless. Hewlett is the author of a book about something she calls ‘Executive Presence’ (EP), which women apparently have less of than men. Why? Because, as she puts it, the ‘window of acceptability’ is smaller for women. For instance,

According to 42 percent of our survey respondents, unkempt nails detract from a female’s EP. At the same time, 37 percent say “overly done” nails are un-leaderlike.

The same problem affects the perception of women’s communication styles, which may be criticized for being either too passive or too pushy.

But where others might conclude that what really ‘detracts from a female’s EP’ is the basic fact that she’s not a man, and the judgments made on her nails or her language are just post-hoc rationalisations, Hewlett insists that women can shift the odds in their favour by changing their self-presentation. And of course, she’s the woman to advise them. Here’s how you hit that sweet spot where your nails are neither ‘unkempt’ nor ‘overly done’. And here’s how you avoid language that ‘undermines your gravitas’ and ‘demeans what you have to say’.

The fact that women are still buying into this is an example of the proverbial triumph of hope over experience. Though the same top tips have been repeated ad nauseam since the 1970s, the pay gap and the glass ceiling are still with us, as indeed is the ‘problem’ of women using powerless language. The only people who’ve ever benefited from this advice are the ones who make a living dishing it out.

When I’ve written about this subject before, my message has been addressed to the producers of bullshit: stop policing women’s language. But this time I’m going to focus on the consumers. Women, please understand: it’s not you that’s undermining yourself by using powerless language; it’s the bullshitters who are undermining you with their constant incitement to anxiety, insecurity and self-censorship. And you don’t have to let them get away with that; all you have to do is ignore them. Don’t buy their books. Don’t sign up for a training course. Don’t laugh at jokes about women saying sorry all the time. And don’t download the Just Not Sorry app. Because the suggestion that removing ‘just’ from your emails will significantly advance your career is an insult to your intelligence. And that really does demean you.