NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Women use and interpret words one way, while men use and interpret words another way. And in the workplace, especially, those differences create a challenge that's twofold: a powerful imbalance and an unnoticed bilingual environment, said Lindsay Cronkright of Currier Plastics Inc.
But according to Cronkright, director of finance and IT at the Auburn, N.Y.-based company, "the onus to learn a foreign language should not fall exclusively to a woman." The responsibility must be shared by both genders.
Cronkright spoke about these language-based gender dynamics during a Nov. 11 presentation at the Women Breaking the Mold Networking Forum, an event organized by Plastics News.
When the bilingual workplace isn't recognized, it puts women at a disadvantage, she explained.
Cronkright cited research by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, who says how people use, interpret and understand language is a learned social behavior.
"You can frame it as if women are raised by one community, and men are raised by a total separate community," she explained.
Based on Tannen's research, women use language to develop rapport. They ask questions to understand and connect with others and are proud to extend compliments, express gratitude and display empathy, Cronkright said. Women also are more likely to wait their turn to speak rather than interrupt someone.
"Within the female community, it's typically frowned upon to boast about one's personal accomplishments," she said. "And so, as a result, women tend to downplay their personal achievements."
For example, women often share the credit by using the pronoun "we" instead of "I," Cronkright noted.
Men, on the other hand, have an entirely different way of using and understanding language.
"Men use language to convey status. They use language as a tactic for securing power," Cronkright said, citing Tannen's research. "From a young age, boys challenge one another and they're not hesitant to highlight personal achievements. In dialogue, men do tend to interrupt more (rather) than wait their turn to speak."
These differences create an imbalance, and the disadvantages are layered within the workforce, where the percentage of women is less than the percentage of men at every single level, she said.
"People gravitate toward similarity, including similarity in linguistic style," Cronkright added. "So the result? A disproportionate number of men in executive positions can perpetuate a disproportionate number of men in executive positions."
That also can lead to a disproportionate number of men being appointed to those leadership positions, which means an organization's top decision makers may lack exposure to the professional perspective of women, she said.
"If there's only one language spoken, what incentive is there to learn another language?" she asked.
Cronkright recalled how a former supervisor said she was "too soft" during an annual performance review. She asked for specific examples but received "very broad brush statements that only added to the ambiguity," she said.
Dictionary definitions for the word "soft" vary widely, too, she discovered—from positive meanings such as kind and gentle to ones with a more negative connotation, including weak, lacking firmness or strength, and compliant.
"I found myself wondering whether my male counterparts have ever been told that they're too harsh," Cronkright said. "How often are men criticized for interrupting people? How often do men receive feedback that maybe they can listen better? Or maybe feedback that the delivery could be more diplomatic? Why aren't men coached to express empathy or display gratitude?"
She added: "Yes, those are qualities of the female community, but aren't they also qualities of an effective leader?"
Ultimately, both genders need to practice awareness and be mindful of the two languages being spoken in the workplace, she said. And remember that the language of the opposite sex can easily be misinterpreted.
"It can totally be lost in translation," she said.