Some hard facts about soft-spoken women

Office gender politics:A new book by a USC management expert argues that women's communication style dooms them to corporate obscurity.
by Meg Sullivan

Few authentic memos can claim the impact of the fictitious missive written two years ago by Kathleen Reardon, an associate professor of management and organization in the School of Business Administration.

Inspired by interviews with hundreds of working women, Reardon's memo laid out the concerns of Liz Ames, an imaginary female employee at Vision Software, an imaginary company with a pattern of losing female executives.

"I believe that top-level women are leaving Vision Software not because they are drawn to other pursuits, but because they are tired of struggling against a climate of female failure," Liz wrote in a memo she dared not send.

Soon after "The Memo in Every Woman's Desk" appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the Washington Post splashed it across its Sunday business section, and National Public Radio gave it prominent airtime.

Across the nation, CEOs, lawyers and female workers squared off in a debate over whether Liz should give the memo to her boss.

Perhaps now she won't need to. Reardon has written a book exploring ways to contend with the oppressive climate Liz wanted to bring to her employer's attention - They Don't Get It, Do They? (Little Brown, $21.95).

"With the memo, I tried to explain what it's like to face a quicksand of indifference and disregard on a daily basis," said Reardon. "The book is an attempt to say, 'OK, this is what you as a woman or a man can do about it.'"

They Don't Get It, Do They?, which is subtitled Communication in the Workplace - Closing the Gap Between Men and Women, has a simple message: some men (and women) routinely undercut women, and some women just take it. While turning the other cheek may make sense in personal relationships, it's a disaster in the work place, where inaction translates as ineffectiveness.

"You don't have to be aggressive or dominate, and you can work within your own style - but you do have to respond," said Reardon, echoing the advice she gives her M.B.A. students.

In fact, Reardon contends, women are "at least 75 percent responsible" for the "dysfunctional communication patterns" that hold up the glass ceiling.

By failing to take action when colleagues interrupt them, discount their achievements, claim credit for their ideas, cut them out of projects or planning sessions and then belittle their concerns over these offenses, women are "giving permission to be run over," Reardon said.

"Many women come from the school that says, 'keep quiet, do your job, be the best you can be and nobody can stop you.' But it's not true," she said.

"Work is a tough place. Men have to be tougher there than they are at home; women are just learning that they must be, too."

Reardon said she understands such proclamations might be interpreted as "blaming the victim" or "strident." But she defends them as soundly based - both on communication theory and on her experience as a business consultant and a professor of persuasion and negotiation.

"I'm saying women need to change in order to get farther ahead," she said. "Nobody's going to open the door and say, 'come in. I'm sorry we forgot you.' That doesn't happen in life."

Fairness aside, the situation can't continue, Reardon argues, because the costs to American business of dysfunctional communication between the sexes are too great to ignore.

In They Don't Get It, Do They?, Reardon notes that the share of women receiving M.B.A.s rose from 8 percent to 31 percent between 1975 and 1985. Today, of all managers and professionals 44 percent are women. Yet in large companies, fewer than 5 percent of senior managers are women.

"They've dressed for success, earned the right academic degrees, postponed or decided against parenthood, studiously avoided behaviors that might be construed as feminist or feminine, taken on tough assignments and learned the lingo," Reardon writes. "But the payoffs have paled by comparison to the tradeoffs."

Tired of "playing the game well and losing," women are deserting employers in droves, choosing instead to start at the top in their own businesses, she reports. The number of women-owned businesses grew by 35 percent from 1989 to 1990. By 2000, she expects, 40 to 50 percent of businesses will be owned by women.

"Many of the women running successful entrepreneurial ventures would have made the traditional companies that lost them more profitable had they been given half a chance," she contends.

Reardon advocates that women master an interpersonal style at odds with the modest, cooperative and less-than-direct identity they have been reared for. She suggests:

  • Get deserved credit. If you're unsure how to do this without sounding off-putting, she advises, study male colleagues. "Men engage in ways of telling their stories without seeming to boast, like using humor."

  • Recognize "noise traps" or agreeable conversations which disguise hints that a requested action will not be taken. "When a boss says, 'Let's get a committee together to look more closely at that,' it's wise to ask for a report by a specific date in the near future. Otherwise, the idea may be sent into limbo."

  • Be simple and direct instead of emotional and personal. "Expressing how being left out of a planning session made you feel only sets the conversation on a personal path and focuses attention on your emotions rather than what someone else did wrong."

  • Get rid of "claim clutter" - arguments and explanations that detract from your position more than they add. "Living a subordinate role, women have learned how to explain and excuse disagreements rather than confront men with them. People interpret such explanations and excuses as revealing a lack of confidence and an inability to exert power."

  • Be wary of "get nothing" requests. "Being helpful is wonderful. It should be everyone's business. But taking everyone else's monkey on your back makes you a packhorse - and a tired one."

  • Avoid disclaimers before making potentially controversial statements. "Women frequently say, 'I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but...' or 'I'm not suggesting that anyone is to blame, but...' Essentially, they apologize for their thoughts. If overused, these kinds of statements reduce the conviction of women's speech and thereby threaten their credibility."

  • Express anger when it's called for. "Women who take this risk often find that the world does not end, they are not fired on the spot, and in fact they garner greater respect."

Reardon, who also directs the Presidential Fellows Program of the USC Leadership Institute, is no women's-rights activist. When asked whether she's a feminist, she responds, "define your terms." ("If you mean equal pay for equal work, I'm a feminist.") She even admits that she was once "convinced that gender isn't an issue if you're good at what you do."

Her eyes were opened to the culture of "female failure" when she worked as a consultant to several companies facing an exodus of women managers and other signs of disaffection among female staff.

"There's a feeling of sinking," she said of the women's morale, "as if their opinions are overlooked. They feel interrupted. They feel left out. These are things they're not supposed to take personally or seriously, but it is personal and it does affect your career." In the course of her interviews, she met women who had written memos (most of them unsent) describing these problems.

But it was the response to her own memo that inspired Reardon - when her third child was just six months old - to hunker down and write They Don't Get It, Do They?

"It really struck a chord with a lot of women," she said of the March 1993 piece, which became one of the best selling reprints in the history of the Harvard Business Review. "Researchers don't like to give advice, but I felt an obligation to provide ways to deal with these problems."

Typically, Reardon said, women don't notice gender-based obstacles until they get older. When they are young, male colleagues may perceive them as "cute and little," taking pleasure in helping them along, she said. But once they acquire experience and reach out for more responsibility, resistance builds.

Discrimination, while deplorable, isn't the only problem, she maintains. Even more pervasive is the common language that divides men and women. Too often, Reardon writes, the ways women communicate with co-workers reinforce negative stereotypes.

"Women are often seen as displaying too much or too little of male-preferred forms of behavior," she explains. "They may be labeled too demure, too controlling, too concerned about feelings, not adequately focused on tasks or ill at ease with getting rid of the 'dead-wood' among employees."

Unlike an earlier generation of authors doling out advice to the woman worker, Reardon doesn't advocate that women pattern themselves after men.

"It's not necessary that women always speak like the men around them," she writes, "but rather that they can do so when it counts."

After all, Reardon asks, what do women have to lose?

Some may worry that assertive behavior will upset men and lead to disfavor. "What they fail to consider is they aren't exactly in favor anyway."

An office-speak primer

"Dysfunctional communication" typically occurs when men minimize legitimate concerns expressed by women, according to management and organization expert Kathleen Reardon.

But women contribute to this pattern with behavior that makes them vulnerable, she contends in her book They Don't Get It, Do They?

Consider the following approach taken by Janet, a 40-year-old manager for a food products company, who has learned of an informal meeting that took place without her. She was the only committee member not told about the meeting, where important decisions were made.

Janet: I felt left out of the planning of this project, Fred. The meeting was held without my knowledge.

Fred: Now Janet, let's not make this a personal thing. Frank, Bill and I happened to run into each other, so we got some work done.

Janet: But I am on the planning team. You could have run it by me.

Fred: You shouldn't waste your energy on this, Janet. It's nothing. Don't feel bad.

Janet: It's happened several times.

Fred: Getting a little paranoid, aren't we?

Janet: I just want to be kept informed.

Fred: OK, Janet. OK. It's no big deal.

Janet erred, according to Reardon, by focusing on her own emotional state rather than the infraction of her colleagues. Reardon contends Janet would have been better off asking herself two questions:

  1. What is the problem?

  2. What do I want?

By stating the answers to these questions in a simple and direct way, Janet would have been more forceful and received more respect, Reardon said. She believes the following would have been the best approach:

Janet: Fred, no more meetings without me.

If Fred tries to defend his position or suggest she is paranoid, Janet should stop him.

Janet: None of that is relevant, Fred. No personal attacks intended or necessary. I'm on the team. I should be at the meetings. It's simple.