Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces
by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris
What follows is Part Two of an edited version of a chapter from our forthcoming book, Scripts for Success: Communication Techniques to Break Through Gender Biased Workplaces. We would welcome your thoughts and comments as we prepare the book for publication.
Our mixed-gender business scenario was meant to illustrate that a woman who communicates only agentic traits or only communal traits is likely to face the full force of gender bias and discriminatory backlash. But if she can use both traits, as appropriate, she is likely to escape or minimize the negative consequences of acting against stereotypical expectations. For example, if a woman using an agentic communication style can also project communal traits of warmth and inclusiveness, she can often “facilitate trust and the . . . absorption of ideas. Even a few small nonverbal signals — a nod, a smile, an open gesture — can show people that [she is] pleased to be in their company and attentive to their concerns . . . demonstrating that [she] hear[s] them, understand[s] them, and can be trusted by them.”3
Andie: During the summer between my second and third years of law school, I worked at a large firm, enjoying the variety and challenge of my projects and the mix of people with whom I was working. I had received high praise from many of the partners I had worked with, so I was shocked when I was told I did not get an offer to work at the firm after graduation. Why? I was told that a senior partner had stated that I would get a job offer only “over his dead body.” When I heard this, I was deeply troubled. I had met this partner only once for, maybe, five minutes and had handled only one project for him and, as far as I knew, had given him exactly what he had asked for.
I thought back to our brief meeting. When I was called to his office, his door was open and he was sitting with his feet on his desk. I knocked on the door frame to catch his attention. He looked my way and motioned towards the corner of his office. I was young and had been told to always shake hands with someone when introducing myself. So, I walked towards his desk, extended my hand, and made the introduction. He stood up and shook my hand. I sat down in one of the chairs across from his desk. He gave me the assignment; I thanked him; I left his office; I did the assignment; and I never gave our five minute meeting another thought, that is, until I was told I would not have the option to work at “his” firm. As I replayed our brief meeting, the reality of the situation finally struck me. I had totally missed the signals he had sent. By walking towards his desk and extending my hand, I had forced him to take his feet off the desk and stand up. And then by sitting down in one of his guest chairs rather than on the low couches in the far corner of his office, I had crossed the line from a dutiful intern to an assertive, pushy woman, clueless as to law firm protocols.
As I have recounted this story over the years, I am often asked if I would have behaved any differently if I had then been aware of the need to manage the impression I was making. The answer is, “yes and no.” While I would not have taken a seat in the corner on a low sofa, I would not have forced the partner to stand up and lose his studied composure by needing to shake my hand. I would have tried to balance my own sense of self with a softer impression. I would have thought about how I appeared to him, and I would have been alert to the discomfort and disapproval I was provoking. I might not have been able to change the outcome, but I would have had a better sense of what I had been actually communicating.
Of course, standing alone, our recommendation that women need to use a combination of agentic and communal communication to advance their careers is hardly helpful, for it leaves unanswered the practical questions of what those communication styles are, how they can be employed, and when they are appropriate. Our book is intended to answer those questions, to provide concrete, hard-headed, and practical advice so that women can navigate over, around and through the gendered speed bumps and traffic barriers they will encounter on their road to career advancement For the present, however, we want to focus exclusively on how women can take control of their careers by taking control of communication.
Stay tuned for Part Three of this article…
This article originally appeared in the WBAI Winter 2015 Newsletter.
Andrea S. Kramer is a Partner in the international law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, resident in its Chicago office.
Alton B. Harris is a Partner in the law firm of Nixon Peabody, resident in its Chicago office.
3. Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger, Connect Then Lead, Harvard Business Review, July/August 2013, p. 56.