Double-voicing, ‘pinkification’ and Millennials… Does our gender shape the language we use in business? Madeleine Lewis asked Professor Judith Baxter of Aston University.  

Doesn’t language simply describe the world of business, or does it do more – does the language we use actually shape business?

Language works in three ways. It is a medium for communicating our everyday needs in the workplace. It offers a specialist toolkit of resources for being really effective and influential in the business world, and especially for being a successful leader. But language also constructs our sense of professional identity and shapes the cultural environment in which we work. So yes, our use of language does create different versions of business reality such as an aggressive, excluding business world if we use a lot of military language, or a stimulating, inspirational and supportive business world if we use an emotionally rich language.

What have you learned about the differences between the language men and women use and what does that say about business and the workplace? Is this changing as more women (albeit it slowly) get into more senior positions?

It is not the simple case that women speak one type of language – a co-operative, caring, open minded one while men speak another – competitive, assertive and confrontational. It is not the case that men and women bring different (opposing or complementary) styles to the workplace, although this happens to a degree. Our identities are shaped by a range of factors: our education, ethnicity, class, sexuality, professional status and so on. The higher women and men progress up the career ladder, the more similar and overlapping their language tends to be. Many senior women learn to be direct and confrontational and many men learn to be emotionally intelligent and mindful. The good news is that they are tending to learn the value of this broader linguistic repertoire from each other.

The main gender difference is that women use a more interactive style of engagement which takes in the needs of their colleagues as well as their own needs. I have called this type of language ‘double-voicing’ because it recognises and responds to the agendas of their colleagues.

Can you tell us a bit more about ‘double-voicing’ and give us a few examples?

In my research, I found that women use double-voicing four times more than men. Women use it in order to pre-empt criticism from colleagues and not to appear demanding or boastful. Double-voicing makes women seem less threatening to colleagues, both male and female. These are all real examples I collected in my data:

‘I realise I am being over-simplistic as usual but…’

‘You have probably thought about this point already but….’

‘I have probably got my wires crossed but should we consider…?.’

‘I am no expert like the rest of you but….’

‘Although it sounds slightly ludicrous at this stage, we need to start making preparations for next year…’

‘Thanks for inviting me to give this talk. I’m afraid I am no public speaker, but…..’

‘Sorry, sorry, I am talking too much; I am talking too much’. (This woman has spoken just twice in the meeting).

Are there any sectoral or cultural differences in language you can share?

I have noticed this less in terms of business sectors but more in terms of cultural differences within functions. So people in financial, IT or operational functions are more likely to use quite direct, factual, confrontational and sometimes aggressive language while people from HR, legal or CSR departments are more likely to show sensitivity and care in the way they interact with colleagues.

Have you done any research into younger people’s language in business? Do you see any differences between different age groups?

Yes. Younger people (who have often been to co-ed, comprehensive schools) have grown up with the ‘opposite’ sex as friends rather than potential sexual partners and use similar speech styles and more gender-neutral language. They are more likely to avoid sexist terms or to describe business practices in an aggressive way.

Young women and men are more likely to use a wide repertoire of language from competitive/assertive to co-operative/supportive as required in different work contexts. However, there is a counter-cultural force that undermines this wider linguistic repertoire, which might be described as ‘pinkification’, where women continue to be objectified in magazines and popular culture as Barbie dolls or bimbos without minds or career aspirations. This is not helping our young business women!

Do you think we need to shift our language to both create more responsible businesses and to attract Millennial talent? Do you see this happening?

Military language used in job advertisements, business reports, management meetings and board meetings is intimidating to women and will prevent them from progressing to senior posts. We need a more inclusive, engaging, interactive, responsive language of business which shows awareness of all sides in any partnership: whether this is between colleagues, a manager and subordinate, with clients, between competitors and so on.

Many women and men leaders today are being trained in methods of emotional intelligence and mindfulness. I was put through such a programme myself! People are learning how to use a range of ‘relational’ linguistic skills to achieve business outcomes more successfully such as listening, agreeing, supporting, encouraging, asking for advice, complimenting, praising, expressing their feelings and apologising if they make a mistake.

By engaging people, building bridges, supporting others to do well, we are equipping both women and men to value the individual moment, gain greater trust in each other, and to develop the self-confidence to progress their business careers.

Judith Baxter is a Professor in Applied Linguistics, Head of the English Language department, and co-Director of the Research Centre for Interdisciplinary research in Language and Diversity (InterLAND) at Aston University. She teaches and researches on a range of specialist topics including the language of leadership, gender and language, gender and leadership, the language of politics and language in the professions.

This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite, BBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. 

Find all the other posts in the series here.

All images from Getty.