Professional women in leading positions face a struggle administering assertiveness while maintaining a feminine image. Men are associated with these positions of power, causing women to be marked when they break the stereotype. Typically, power is defined through speech. For women, Tannen observes:
“Femaleness is associated with softeners, mitigation, and politeness, whereas maleness is associated with authority. This means that womenwho want to sound authoritative must risk sounding male” (168).
As a result, the impressions left on subordinates if a woman adopts masculine conversational rituals is that she is abrasive or aggressive. This translates to the woman being disliked at work, a concern many women avoid at all costs to the point of masking their own abilities and not speaking up in situations that could cause them to appear powerful.
Those in leadership roles take on a responsibility by how their utilize their authority. Even in advanced positions, women are expected to adhere to standards typical of their sex. For example, it is assumed a woman will be polite and speak indirectly. Furthermore, the fear of being disliked is influential in female speech patterns. If a woman breaks these feminine norms, Tannen observes:
“But if she talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion, interrupts others, goes on a length, and speaks in a declamatory and aggressive manner, she will be disliked” (170).
As an alternative option, women then tend to downplay their authority. Creating a sense of “equal footing,” this tactic can benefit women by facilitating a team player atmosphere. Women find this strategy helpful and it allows them to relate to their subordinates. Tannen additionally clarifies:
“This doesn’t mean that women or men who speak this way really think everyone is equal; it means they have to do a certain amount of conversational work to make sure the maintain the proper demeanor—to fit their sense of what makes a good person, which entails not seeming to parade their higher status” (177).
Tannen bluntly states that women face a catch-22 as she expresses her desire for more women to have the freedom to express themselves without being marked as feminine or unfeminine for their administration of authority.
1) How do you think women can reach a balance of exerting authority and femininity?
2) What can modern women do to assert power without being abrasive?
3) How do you define power and femininity? How do the two relate?