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Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers is co-author of Getting to 50/50: How working couples can have it all by sharing it all. A former managing director at Goldman Sachs, she now works in Silicon Valley.

Leadership's next frontier: Changing how we use our words and bodies

"In Japan, we say there are three genders: Men, women, and American women," joked the head of our Tokyo office. It was 1992 and he was trying to inoculate me for my first week of Japanese business meetings - against any worry that I might be held to local female standards: being deferential toward men (not good at that), speaking in a soft, high voice (ditto), serving tea (spills likely). I laughed, thankful that he was giving me license to be myself - and thankful that I was a member of the third sex, American women, unburdened by the gender codes of traditional societies.

This summer, The Daily Show's "women" kerfuffle reset my blithe sense that we're so much freer of cultural baggage. Top female ex-staffers said they'd felt "ignored and dismissed" and the knee-jerk debate about sexism ensued. Is there a more useful way to look at these all-too-common rows?

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers offers one alternate frame. The book shows how the weight of culture can bring down even planes. Cultures laden with hierarchy, it turns out, have bad crash records because junior officers feel unable to voice concerns. Korean Airlines (KAL) was the worst - stunning the world with a string of crashes because their flight crews could not speak up. From the black boxes of doomed planes, Gladwell reveals an alarming truth. Social norms can be insidious, costly - and sometimes stronger than the will to live.

How did KAL fix this problem? They changed the language of the cockpit - to English. By changing the words spoken, KAL re-set the tone in the cockpit and gave subordinates a way to make themselves heard.

While U.S. women have cast off many a mental girdle, we've held onto social standards that cause a lot of trouble. With the help of the guys around us, we continue to act out norms that generate unhappiness between men and women - and make it harder for us to work together.

After many late nights, I'd flown cross country as the junior member of a restructuring team. Our client was a bank on the verge of collapse and our job was to save it. In the meeting, my boss glowered. The bank's leaders argued among themselves rather than responding to our analysis. When it was my turn to speak, I tried to ease the tension by putting context around our numbers and using a warm tone. The bank's CEO ignored what I was saying to instead squabble with a board member next to me - for 10 minutes. Yielding to the will of the client, I sat back and attempted a patient smile.

"You lost control of the meeting," my boss said gruffly on the way to the airport. "You should have looked the CEO in the eye and said, 'You're wrong! You're missing the point.' Worse, you were wordy and you smiled at him, like it was OK that he interrupted you." I didn't recall my boss saying anything so bold and wasn't sure how effective I, the team minion, would have been with a stare-down. But my boss made me think: Why all the words and why had I smiled?

Researching Getting to 50/50, I learned that women speak an average of 21,000 words a day while men use a mere 7,000. (My husband says I'm above average and should shield him from my verbal tsunami; but studies say female verbal supremacy is really a form of deference - that we feel obliged to explain ourselves more than men do). Data also shows we women more often tilt our heads and smile encouragingly because we've been socialized to think this is the polite thing to do. And we wait patiently for our turn to speak. And don't retaliate when interrupted.

So when women say they don't feel heard, should we tell them to act more like men? Or should men drop the dominance bit - and learn to like listening? Both would help. Men and women need to get on the same page about what's "normal," so we work together more constructively.

It's not generational, either. Talking with a panel of current business school students, a female lecturer said "You know, I make a big effort to call on women in my class. But it seems like the guys still dominate the conversation. Why is that?" The female students had an interesting take: It's not that the women are too quiet, it's that the men are too noisy. "Guys in our class feel free to express an opinion when they haven't read the case. They have no shame. Women think that's irresponsible and don't speak unless they have something valuable to say."

When a graduate school professor was asked why there weren't more female speakers in his classes, he had a simple answer: "Well, men bang down my door to come present their ideas. Women seem to be waiting to be asked."

To get beyond mere anecdotes, check out The OpEd Project, an effort committed to closing one specific gender gap: Men submit eight times more newspaper opinion pieces than women do. Sitting in an OpEd Project seminar, I saw women who are tenured professors, leaders in business, medicine and law reveal an extreme inability to utter a simple sentence: "I am an expert in X because Y" as in "I am an expert in cloning because I invented some of the first successful techniques." "It's so male to do that!" a highly accomplished woman said. "It sounds like you are putting yourself forward."

Catherine Orenstein, the group's founder, says this is common among the thousands of people who've gone through her program - that even world-renown women experience discomfort applying the word "expert" to themselves in a way men don't.

Korean Airlines imported a new language to fix its cockpit culture problems. Changing language - the one that divides men and women - can go a long way to fix glitches in gender culture too. To start, let's think twice about common phrases that widen male/female gaps, instead of shrinking them.

"She's aggressive." Before I worked for her, this is how a guy friend described one of my favorite bosses. The woman, I learned, was indeed vocal - and incredibly kind. I've since heard experts say there's one trait that defines successful women in business: they're louder. So no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, let's encourage as much volume in our daughters as we do in our sons.

"My wife stays home; it's better that way."
I once hired a lawyer to review an employment contract. Unprompted he cautioned me: "You don't really want this job, do you? When both parents have demanding jobs, kids don't do well." While I was paying for this inaccurate advice (real facts here), many women tell us they get it for free - often from well-intentioned co-workers. No matter what you believe about kids, if you wouldn't urge a man to back away from a job, please don't suggest it to a woman.

"My husband can't multi-task." "Learned incompetence" is debilitating for all of us. When we use words that excuse a man from knowing how to handle household chores and children (or a woman from knowing how to handle an oil change, the TV remote or money), we set ourselves up for collisions that could be avoided.

And every time we apply a common language to men and women, we nudge the culture, inch by inch, away from double standards.

But, there's a silent language that we can each change instantly - if we know it exists. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, leadership professor Deborah Gruenfeld teaches a course called "Acting with Power," where students learn to look for and use non-verbal cues of high and low status. Guess what? Most high-power behaviors, like claiming space, bold gestures, and interrupting, are typically seen as "male." Acts of "playing low", including keeping limbs close to the body, glancing away and nodding encouragement, are often thought of as "female."

Gruenfeld points out that, when it comes to having influence, the quality of the argument is often less important than the status of its proponent. And status is signaled in milliseconds by each of us when we walk in a room. So who gets heard is also a function of the language our bodies convey. "The students in my classes come in feeling trapped by the ways they have learned to play gender roles," she says. "But they learn very quickly that what feels natural is just over-learned, and that different work roles call for different kinds of physical actions, regardless of gender. To succeed in a hierarchy, you need to be able to play both high and low. There are real benefits to both."

As we try to find a lingua franca both genders can use, new research offers some norm-shifting ideas. Whether you're a man or woman, putting your body in positions that speak power makes you feel good. See yourself as the executive in the boardroom who "crests the table with his feet, fingers interlaced behind his back, elbows pointing outwards" and amazing things happen. Your testosterone (confidence) rises, cortisol (stress) falls, you're more likely to take risk and feel "in charge." Who doesn't like that? So let's encourage our girls to put their feet up - and make changing the language both comfortable and fun.
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For more from Sharon Meers, read Thick Skin, and more of it

Read On Leadership's panel reactions to the NYC Mosque controversy here

By Sharon Meers

 |  August 27, 2010; 8:39 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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Andreas, you have too many doubts. You should just give up on that altogether.

Come live with me, I will make all the decisions for you and you can focus on living a peaceful life as my servant.

It's a win-win situation.

Posted by: ZZim | August 30, 2010 11:39 AM
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Men and women may be equal, they are not the same. Trying to be male when you are female or vice versa makes you unhappy. Be content with yourself, love yourself for what you are and not for what you are not but should be.

Many males take a lot of space because they have an inflated ego. Their masculine instincts drive them to the top, because then they can mate with a lot of women and have many children. But wait a minute. We are no longer ape-men. When a man at the top looks at a woman, he has to pay for sexual harassment. If he looks twice, he has to pay alimony. And these days the plumber mates more than the executive, so to speak.

I write this tongue-in-cheek, but there is some truth in it. When we are controlled by our instincts, we have a good chance of becoming unhappy. When we control our instincts and steer ourselves in a beneficial direction, we have more chance to get a good live.

In the Netherlands we have a biologist, Midas Dekkers, who gave an example of some fish. Most members of this species shy away from danger. But some of them have less brain-capacity and take the lead. And get eaten first. He compares men-at-the-top with the fish with diminished brain-capacity. They get themselves in a lot of trouble, have to work very hard and the rewards are meager. Perhaps your presidents are fine examples of those, that work to hard and get blamed for everything that happens or not.

Sharon, one of your axioms is apparently, that it is good to be at the top. I have some doubts about the validity of that axiom.

Posted by: andreasfirewolf | August 30, 2010 11:22 AM
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Sharon, one of your axioms is apparently, that it is good to be at the top. I have sime doubts about the validity of that axiom.

Posted by: andreasfirewolf

- - - - - - -

Andreas, I want you so be my servant.

Then we will both be happy. I can't pay much, but at least you won't get eaten.

Posted by: ZZim | August 30, 2010 10:55 AM
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Men and women may be equal, they are not the same. Trying to be male when you are female or vice versa makes you unhappy. Be content with yourself, love yourself for what you are and not for what you are not but should be.

Many males take a lot of space because they have an inflated ego. Their masculine instincts drive them to the top, because then they can mate with a lot of women and have many children. But wait a minute. We are no longer ape-men. When a man at the top looks at a woman, he has to pay for sexual harassment. If he looks twice, he has to pay alimony. And these days the plumber mates more than the executive, so to speak.

I write this tongue-in-cheek, but there is some truth in it. When we are controlled by our instincts, we have a good chance of becoming unhappy. When we control our instincts and steer ourselves in a benificial direction, we have more chance to get a good live.

In the Netherlands we have a biologist, Midas Dekkers, who gave an example of some fish. Most members of this species shy away from danger. But some of them have less brain-capacity and take the lead. And get eaten first. He compares men-at-the-top with the fish with diminshed brain-capacity. They get themselves in a lot of trouble, have to work very hard and the rewards are meager. Perhaps your presidents are fine examples of those, that work to hard and get blamed for everything that happens or not.

Sharon, one of your axioms is apparently, that it is good to be at the top. I have sime doubts about the validity of that axiom.

Posted by: andreasfirewolf | August 30, 2010 10:36 AM
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Actually, children DON'T do well when both parents have demanding jobs.

So if you want that high-powered career, you need to find a weak, unambitious man who's happy to play second-fiddle.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by: ZZim | August 30, 2010 10:27 AM
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Everything is true!
Go in look look: http://www.bizboysell.com
Believe that you may need.

Posted by: itkonlyyou259 | August 30, 2010 9:03 AM
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Everything is true!
Go in look look: http://www.bizboysell.com
Believe that you may need.

Posted by: itkonlyyou259 | August 30, 2010 8:58 AM
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I agree with SKR3211. What a complete waste of time; this article said nothing. Other than the "verbal tsunami" phrase, this article had no redeeming value.

Posted by: IgnorantHillbilly | August 30, 2010 8:45 AM
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The title says the article covers how we use our bodies, but I couldn't find this section. I was hoping that the author would slam the sleazy body-revealing clothing, etc., that is popular in business. How can women be taken seriously when wearing these so-called fashions?

Posted by: tina5 | August 30, 2010 8:05 AM
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What an interesting take! If women want to be successful, act like men! Out-scream them! And this from a women who worked for goldman sachs, not only a good ole boys club but an institution that devastated the economy and only benefitted the upper management of g-s. Women like carly fiorina drive h-p into the ground and leave with a golden parachute......just like any man would have done. What effect has gender diversity had on american business? Not much. Unlike that inane movie 9-5, women are not increasing childcare, women are not bettering healthcare, women are certainly not making the workplace a kinder, gentler place. The successful women like meg whitman, carly and that barbie doll from mattel whose name escapes me, have only played the same greedy, ruthless, ego-centric game that men have done all along. The women who succeed in business not only embrace corporate culture but they perpetuate it. And these women also tend to be a bunch of right-wingers! Where's the progress? Instead of just hating our male bosses, now we get to also hate our female bosses as well. Please tell me what benefit there is when a group of men and women screw people over versus when a group of men screw people over? This is an example of when the "victim" needs to be blamed. The "victim" has only abetted the oppressors and should not be rewarded for such behavior. Or maybe, women are just like men in which case any progress will be slow and excruciatingly painful.

Posted by: bob2davis | August 30, 2010 7:26 AM
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If you are taking your cultural cues from The Daily Show you may have uncovered a personal flaw in your logic. Symbolism is not unimportant but just change the attitude and the terms meanings will change, It might not hurt if you actually DO the job you claim is the same as a male's job ,Not just hold the same job title. When you do, I think , by and large, you will get the same breaks.

All that having been written, We ARE different (thank goodness) and to ignore that is ludicrous.

Posted by: theduck6 | August 30, 2010 7:14 AM
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The entire article was totally worthless because it said nothing. The women who wrote it acted (if you will forgive the expression)as a typical women, a whole bunch of words and nothing said.

Posted by: skr3211 | August 30, 2010 1:07 AM
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I'd find some credibility in your theories if you were posting from Sweden or one of the few countries where women really are empowered, equal and have executive and professional leadership norms.
Posted by: AsperGirl
-----------------------------------

I don't know what to say here. I remember telling a Dutch graduate student that my female students seemed to get better jobs than my male students.

She responded with, "Yes, and if you are a woman giving a talk at a conference, you are much more likely to be remembered."

An American woman in the same situation might have shouted at me.

Not all American women to be sure. But being ungracious is a talent common among American women, and much less among Europeans, but they are far more likely to excel in science.

Have you ever noticed that the head of a department in a university, if he is male, is never one of the egotistic, bullying professors? It is usually someone who listens to everyone with patience.

Female talents can take you to a position of leadership. But leadership is not about bullying subordinates, or about admiring men who bully their subordinates. It is about arriving at consensus.

Posted by: rohit57 | August 29, 2010 4:40 PM
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Loved your article, and love the fact that you are not afraid to speak the truth. Please keep it up. Took an MBA and an engineering undergrad and have always worked with men.

Posted by: kkirkmba | August 28, 2010 9:10 PM
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John Wayne said it best: "Don't complain. Don't explain."

Posted by: LeeH1 | August 28, 2010 12:54 PM
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Women talk to small children. We talk to younger siblings, the children we babysit as young teens, and then our own or the children of friends and relatives. Conversation with a small child involves many, many words, on the part of both the adult and the child. When conversing with a small child, one also learns to recognize when the child simply isn't yet able to grasp a particular concept and to shelve that concept for later. Based on this article, we probably need to rethink our automatic conversational patterns in business settings, which will be difficult as the people with whom we are conversing do seem to use the same patterns as small children.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | August 28, 2010 10:31 AM
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This article is well meaning and its recommendations helthy, but its author clearly lives in a different culture than mine. We both live in the USA, but the way she describes home and work life is totally different than my experience.

In my family, everyone knows to shut up and obey mom, or else. In my workplace, women cannot be questioned by their peers or else they will be branded as sexist. Maybe it is because I work for an engineering company, and the author works in finance/consulting. Perhaps the author's workplace experience says less about sexism and more about how arrogant American management culture has become.

If so, shouldn't we be teaching BOTH girls AND boys to be less loud, and less agressive rather than teaching girls to be just as agressive as men?

Posted by: skeptik3 | August 27, 2010 1:37 PM
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I'm sorry you feel that way CrystalG, but women are worth the same as men. That is a fundamental human right. You're post is offensive to me, and I am not shocked that WAPO finds women equal.

Posted by: Iolani | August 27, 2010 1:32 PM
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Oh kiss my backside. Every time I was sexually harassed and came forward openly as if I had the right to say "no" or "stop" without engaging in complex months of planning to come forward, every other female in the environment freaked out and stabbed me in the back. The undermining of other women, in any woman who tries to assert her rights in the U.S., is the main reason why women are so underrepresented in Congress, elected executives, corporate executives, clergy and academia. The only places women thrive is in workplaces where there's some external agency like the EEOC that takes the job of complaint prosecution over on behalf of the women and takes the heat off of her.

Western women are far from being empowered equals in the workplace or academia because of their own narcissistic Schadenfreude. The ones who succeed are mostly good tools and proteges of some powerful man or slaves of groupthink. Look at how liberal women jumped Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin using misogyny and sexual belittling.

I'd find some credibility in your theories if you were posting from Sweden or one of the few countries where women really are empowered, equal and have executive and professional leadership norms.

Posted by: AsperGirl | August 27, 2010 12:42 PM
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A former director of Goldman Sachs, like this author, should be familiar with the "ego-centric" and greedy corporate culture. She blames male chauvinism for her perceived lack of effectiveness, when it could be something as simple and cruel as her consulting team was brought in to be blamed for management mistakes. In that case, her participation and contributions would be irrelevant.

And while she bristles that women are treated differently than men, she quotes examples that show women act differently than men and respond in a social setting differently than men. In fact, she skips all over the place, using a good part of her 21,000 quota of daily words, apparently because she thinks she has to explain herself properly, while making an odd point that men are able to explain the same ideas in a third of the words.

If she reads my comment, I suggest that she associate with people who respect and treasure her for herself – and treat people as she would be treated, work to improve her shortcomings, hoping that her co-workers and superiors respond properly, and forgiving them if they don’t. It’s not flashy and it’s not immediate – but it works in the long haul.

Posted by: shadowmagician | August 27, 2010 12:11 PM
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How can the WAPO post this article? Women can't be equal under Islam. According to the Koran, females are worth 2/3 of a male. The WAPO has been running so many pro-Muslim stories I'm shocked that they would print this as it would be considered to offensive to Islam.

Posted by: CrystalG | August 27, 2010 11:19 AM
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