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[personal profile] nymeth posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
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A couple of days ago, we here at Lady Business headquarters were discussing Sarah Rees Brennan’s recent post titled “Ladies, Don’t Let Anyone Tell You You’re Not Awesome”. Brennan makes excellent points about the social acceptability of confidence in men and women. Although I don’t think we can assume this is always the root cause behind a woman’s insecurity, her points are certainly worth bearing in mind. Plus she earns extra awesome points by adding,
I hesitate to say any of this because I don’t want to see any specific fictional lady lambasted for being insecure: loads of people are insecure. And readers naturally criticise girls for anything: that’s my whole point.

Which may seem like an unnecessary disclaimer, but unfortunately I’ve often seen critiques of the social double standard that pressures women into apologetic modesty slip into problematic “Don’t insecure, spineless, WEAK women who don’t stand up for themselves just totally suck?” terrain. This is, of course, just one more chapter in the ongoing conversation about how the goal of feminism is not to replace traditional models of femininity with alternative but equally mandatory and restrictive models. If you think it is, I’m afraid you’re DOIN IT RONG.

This brings me to the real topic of this post: the conversation about Sarah Rees Brennan’s post reminded me of Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, an incredibly satisfying critical smackdown of gender essentialism in sociolinguistics. There’s a specific point I was going to make when I reviewed the book, only it doubled the length of my post and was a bit of an aside anyway. Since I’ve been encouraged to think of LB as a place for all my extra words, you’re getting it here instead.

Cameron writes about how the pseudoscientific rhetoric of gender essentialism permeates several management or business how-to guides in ways that, interestingly enough, actually create a tension with that’s truly valued in a patriarchal society. According to these books, a “feminine” communication style – nurturing, encouraging, and relationship centred – is nowadays preferable to a more traditional “masculine” leadership style. “Feminine” communication is therefore overtly praised, but at the same time, it’s covertly devalued. No matter how many management gurus recommend cooperation, encouragement, or listening skills, the corporate world still rewards ruthlessness and traditional authority – and everyone knows it.

This is true of most public arenas, really. The most perverse thing of all is that women who enter public discourse are doubly punished, because their adoption of widely admired “masculine” traits or behaviours is not read the same way when it’s them and not men performing them. The men are great leaders; the women unnatural shrews. Which is of course what Sarah Rees Brennan was also getting at.

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to state the obvious and say that I don’t believe that these different communication styles are inherently masculine or feminine. And believing they’re socially constructed rather than inevitable isn’t even the same as believing they’re an accurate representation of reality: I have my doubts about what an analysis of the percentage of men and women who communicate in one way or another will reveal if we control for confirmation bias and the tendency for the exact same speech act to be interpreted differently in men and women. Studies that point in this direction DO exist out there. Nevertheless, the fact remains that cooperative communication styles are strongly associated with femininity, and this is a huge part of why they’re so often held in contempt.

I am a woman, and I also happen to be a pretty stereotypical example of someone with a cooperative communication style. Hedges, quantifiers, tag questions – I use them all a lot. I add a bunch of disclaimers to most of what I say, and I worry about alienating people or hurting their feelings. The way I phrase things is often shaped with these concerns firmly in mind. I don’t know what role female socialisation played in shaping the way I communicate – we can’t, after all, ever truly separate the strands of what made us who we are. I do know several men just like me, and many women very much unlike me. But I also know that in this regard I’m pretty gender-normative. By communicating the way I do, I do not trespass. I’ll never have the hostility that unapologetically outspoken women have directed at them directed at me.

The thing is, not trespassing doesn’t necessarily mean I have it easy. Women are constantly put in impossible positions, and this is just one more example. The outspokenness or sarcasm I so admire in many women lead to accusations of “bitchiness”. And my own milder demeanour is often constructed as spinelessness. It’s perceived as gender-appropriate, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also despised.

You know what, though? I’m a cooperative communicator and I’m not one bit sorry. I’m telling this to myself as much as to anyone else, because very often I do feel like a failure for not adopting traditionally masculine traits that, while censured in my gender, are more socially prestigious and thus seen as superior. But I get tired of being made to feel weak and shamefully womanish because of this. I admire outspokenness, but I also don’t think my hedges or my disclaimers make me a failure as a human or a traitor to feminist ideals. There isn’t one right way for people to communicate – bluntness is effective with some audience, caution with others. Obviously this also means there’s no right way for women to communicate: speaking up doesn’t make anyone a “bitch”, and being tentative doesn’t make anyone a “doormat”. Once again, we can have the full spectrum – and we shouldn’t ever settle for anything less.


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