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Goladus · 2007-09-29 · Original thread
Linguistics professor and writer Suzette Haden Elgin has a few theories about this. She emphasizes the importance of how ideas are conveyed and understood via body language, tone of voice, and operating metaphors.

Her books were written a few years ago, but she points out that a woman will more typically understand a given scenario with a "classic schoolroom" metaphor, where men are more likely to use a sports metaphor (especially football, but also basketball or baseball). This explains both the "faith in meritocracy" and the fact that many of the successful panelists played sports in college. This also explains another phenomenon that wasn't mentioned, where a person using a classroom metaphor and has failed at something has a tendancy to take it much harder than someone failing at a sports metaphor. Failing a test is failure, period, failing to score a touchdown means you have to get an interception or something and then try again. Ability to deal with failure effectively is important for entrepreneurs. This actually may also explain why men may be more afraid to criticize female employees. It's not just because they're patronizing (though in some cases that may be true) it's because they're afraid that it won't help anything and will in fact make matters worse.

Metaphors are a terrific way to explain how people view the world. Joel Spolsky talks about the "Command and Control" management method, and what's really happening there is the boss is modeling the environment on a military team. Understanding what's going on there goes a long way towards dealing with the situation, even if your ultimate decision, as an employee, is to go somewhere else, though in fact Elgin describes a technique called "semantic modulation" where you slowly change the metaphor that people are using to communicate.

Another thing she emphasizes is body language and tone of voice. In English, a tone of adult authority is deep, resonant, relaxed, and comforting all at the same time. Women aren't traditionally expected to speak that way, and their voices tend to be naturally higher pitched. I'm curious to know what the voice quality was of those women on the panel. I suspect their voices had traits much more common in men, which may have a lot to do with the perception that they are "not like girls you knew in college."

If you search Amazon for books about women and business, there are hundreds of books targeted toward women looking to succeed. However, there is not a single book written for men about understanding their female co-workers. Not in the sense of how to talk to them, but in the sense of creating a systemic environment that's tolerant of varying perceptions and aspirations. Perhaps this is why most discussions about women and business eventually devolve into random speculation about "the nature of women" and whatnot.

I'd say "how to talk to them" is far and away the most important subject, I just wouldn't describe it that way. I haven't read them all, but I highly recommend the Haden Elgin "Gentle Art" series. She gives concrete, practical advice and insighlful explanations. It's often not targeted specifically at women or men, it just describes the problem and explains ways that it can be solved. She tends to focus more on verbal conflict and tension than on day to day behavior, but it's still very useful.

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work,

Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, (I have not read this one)

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