April 2011Volume 16Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Consultant gives tips for interpreting gender-linked communications styles

Although women may prefer to collaborate and make decisions by consensus, men should not mistake this preference as a sign of incompetence or insecurity, a national consultant on gender and communications told law students and lawyers at the Second Annual Women in Leadership Dinner sponsored by Southern Illinois University School of Law in January.

Conversely, said speaker Jane Sanders, women should not mistakenly perceive men as not listening or not caring when men listen silently and avoid eye contact during a conversation. While women may prefer to make eye contact as a way of connecting with the other person in the conversation, she said, men often avoid direct and constant eye contact because it may be perceived as a sign of aggression or flirtation.

Sanders, who has memorialized this and other advice in a book called “GenderSmart – Solving the Communication Puzzle Between Men and Women,” was the keynote speaker for the law school’s Women in Leadership Dinner on January 14. As president of her own company, GenderSmart Solutions, Sanders has provided consulting services to Fortune 500 companies nationwide, including State Farm, MassMutual, and Toyota.

Sanders told the audience that it’s not uncommon for men and women to experience difficulties, in both their professional and personal lives, communicating with members of the opposite sex. One of the keys to overcoming these obstacles, she said, is recognizing differing gender-linked communications styles and perceptions. While it is not certain why these differences exist, Sanders said that one strong possibility is physiological differences between the sexes. The areas of the brain for emotions and verbal use tend to be larger in women, and their brains circulate more oxytocin, a bonding chemical. Meanwhile, men produce 10-100 times more testosterone, a hormone impacting aggression and competition, than women.

Sanders offered several masculine and feminine styles, the perceptions to those styles, and strategies in overcoming those differences to achieve more effective communication. She indicated that the masculine style is generally associated with independence, status, and competition, while the feminine style is more concerned with consensus, connections, and harmony. She emphasized, however, that both masculine and feminine styles are present in both men and women.

One feminine style is the reluctance to boast or sell oneself. Men perceive this as women’s insecurity, causing men to underestimate women’s abilities. In overcoming this difference, Sanders suggested that men ask women about their accomplishments, and realize that women are not incompetent simply because they fail to boast. Women can overcome this difference by learning to promote themselves, and taking credit for their accomplishments.

Another feminine style includes the tendency of women to discuss their decisions and collaborate. Sanders said that men may perceive this behavior as indecisiveness, insecurity, or incompetence on the part of the woman. As a strategy for success, Sanders suggested that women strive to make some decisions independently to demonstrate that they are fully competent to do so. Conversely, men should recognize that the preference for collaboration and discussion is simply a matter of style and should not use it to judge a woman’s competence.

Sanders said that women also tend to discuss their problems and feelings, which leads some men to perceive this feminine style as too emotional, troubled, and weak. The masculine style, on the other hand, is to avoid emotions, which women perceive this as a lack of caring. Here again, Sanders suggested that men try to recognize this tendency to discussion emotions as a style and can bolster connections with women by expressing that they understand women’s concerns and trying to empathize by sharing a similar story or situation. Men should also refrain from offering solutions, recognizing that the woman may simply be venting. Women, on the other hand, can overcome this communication obstacle by minimizing discussing their personal issues with men. Sanders suggested that women find other sources of emotional support, and realize that even if men avoid discussing emotions, that doesn’t mean that they are uncaring or unfeeling. Women can improve communications by asking for what they want or need.

Sanders suggested that women can also help themselves by avoiding overuse of tag questions (for example, “This is a good report, don’t you think?”) apologies, disclaimers, and indirect requests. She said that men interpret these verbal cues to mean the woman is less credible and dependable, vague, indecisive, or manipulative. Men, however, should again simply recognize these techniques as style difference, and refrain from judging women who use them as less competent or weak.

One masculine style, explained Sanders, is that many men find it difficult to ask for help. Women, however, perceive this style as the man being a “know-it-all,” wasting time, or simply being reckless. Men can work on overcoming this difference by understanding that asking for help does not equate to weakness or incompetence. Women can foster better communication by being aware that men are “hardwired” for competition and status, which is undermined by the appearance of weakness in asking for help or directions. Both men and women can succeed by ensuring that all team members understand instructions.

Peppered with anecdotes and cartoons, Sanders’ presentation was very informative and undeniably entertaining. More information about her communication strategies, consulting and speaking services, or her book, are available at her Web site at www.janesanders.com.

Sanders’s presentation was the concluding event of the SIU law school’s annual Women in Leadership Workshop, which was first offered in 2010 as a means of addressing gender disparities in leadership roles within the legal profession. Today, women earn law degrees in almost equal number to their male counterparts; according to the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, women accounted for 47.1% of J.D.’s awarded in the 2007-2008 academic year. However, women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions in the profession. For instance, women account for only 19.2% of law firm partners, 24.7% of federal district court judges, and 20.6% of law school deans.

In response to these statistics, Professors Cindy Buys and Alice Noble-Allgire decided to equip their female student with the skills to break the glass ceiling in the legal profession and to educate male and female students about gender and leadership issues. The two-day workshop features a discussion of gender communication barriers, differing negotiating styles, and numerous other leadership topics. Thirty law students participated in the workshop on January 13 and 14 this year. In addition to learning about communication differences between the genders, networking skills, and negotiation skills, students also had the chance to network with local judges, professors, and other leaders in the local legal community.

In addition to the one hour of academic credit for participation in the Workshop, students will have the opportunity to participate in a practicum throughout the semester for two additional credit hours. During the practicum, students will have the opportunity to shadow a local female attorney, give a presentation on gender issues in the profession, and research specialized gender issues according to the student’s interests.

Participating students feel that the Workshop has positively impacted their legal education and future career. Natalie Lorenz, a second-year law student, participated in the 2010 Workshop and practicum. According to Natalie, “the Women in Leadership Conference has given me a great deal of insight into women’s roles in the legal community . . . . I have also gained confidence, allowing me to use what I have learned to enhance my own experiences in the legal field.” Another participant in the Workshop, Ellen Ogden, said, “I have no doubt the insight I gained regarding gender in the legal profession will help me to become a successful attorney.” Finding the workshop beneficial for male students, Patrick Sullivan, another second-year law student, stated, “The overall theme was positive, as it embraced the differences between men and women and focused on the role each individual can play to help minimize both active and passive discrimination against, not just women, but all groups that deserve equal treatment.” 

In addition to the positive response from the student body, the response from the professional community has been overwhelmingly positive to the program. Showing their support of the program, both SIU Chancellor Rita Cheng and SIU School of Law Dean Cynthia Fountaine spoke at the dinner. Members of the community, including judges, professors, and attorneys, participated in the workshop and attended the dinner. Considering the positive response from both students and the community, the workshop may expand in the future to include students from the College of Business and the School of Medicine. ■

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