In politics and elsewhere, women’s voices are still less loud, less audible and less influential. In the workplace, the public sphere or in private conversations, women rarely speak up for themselves, tend to avoid conflicts and are less confrontational. And when they do speak up, their voice is often treated with contempt or blatantly ignored.
In this post I want to query how women could develop original forms of communication that would allow them to express their own interests in an assertive way, while also keeping some of their ‘feminine’ characteristics. In particular, if women want to become more numerous and influential in political spheres, it is vital for them to elaborate more efficient ways to communicate.
Female vs. male communication
Some studies show that women use a more cooperative, softer, non-assertive and non-competitive form of language. This can be a hurdle in numerous contexts where competitiveness, aggressiveness and assertiveness are either valued or efficient. Politics is one obvious example: in this field, competitive, aggressive and assertive tendencies seem to prevail. More generally, gender stereotypes are used to justify women’s unlikelihood to speak up: the general perception of women as instruments whose function is primordially to be used, as passive sexual objects than as active subjects, as bodies and faces that should be looked at and evaluated on the basis of demanding aesthetic criteria, as sacrificial mothers or as empathetic persons mainly attuned to other’s people needs, is not very compatible with an assertive form of communication.
On the other hand, research shows that men interrupt more than women, intervene more boldly in public settings and speak more than women in situations where status matters. So much for the cliché according to which “women speak too much”. Yet, status does matter in most social spheres: in the work place, in public life, in politics and even in the home. Contrary to a well-ingrained cliché, the private sphere is not a realm on which women rule and exert their power. In a couple and inside the family, women are still very much disadvantaged because of the relations of power that prevail in these situations, as much as because of the discriminations they undergo elsewhere.
Thus, it could very well be that, in most social spheres, men not only speak up more, but that they also just speak more than women. Besides, we should ask ourselves whether it is the amount of speech or rather its impact that denotes real power. Is it not more important that our word be influential rather than simply to speak the most words? And here, it does seem that men’s voices, supported by their generally higher status and power, enjoy a more substantial impact on their surroundings.
Social construction or natural differences?
In a naturalist and essentialist perspective, these differences are nothing but the expression of innate and natural differences between the sexes. No matter how detrimental they can prove to be for women, these differences are seen as both natural and unquestionable. In other words, if women are less assertive in their communication, it is because it is part of their nature to convey messages in a milder, softer and more subtle way, as well as to avoid situations of conflicts, to be less aggressive, more cooperative, empathetic, passive, generous, and so on and so forth. In the same line, if women spend more time at home looking after their kids or washing up socks or are employed in undervalued and underpaid communication- and care-related jobs, it all comes down to natural characteristics.
The fact that most naturalist arguments are used to justify existing inequalities is not sufficient to discard them all together. Some of the social differences between the sexes could very well derive from natural causes. This being said, this debate between nature and nurture is unlikely to be settled any time soon. Not only is the current scientific knowledge on that topic controversial and contradictory, but some elements might prevent scientists to ever close this debate for good. First of all, since socialization takes place early on—already in the womb—it is almost impossible to isolate the role played by innate elements in social behaviour. Secondly, researchers are themselves imbued with gender stereotypes and cannot therefore be absolutely neutral when analysing this topic. Thirdly, most scientists now agree that socialization does impact on biology – as suggested by theories of epigenetic and brain plasticity.
This means that trying to identify natural differences between the sexes by analysing hormones, brain structures and genes, as most scientists do, is largely meaningless. The differences observed through such investigations could very well be generated by the environment rather than by nature.
But finally, this polemic seems very far from ordinary women’s concerns. Consequently, I think it is preferable to shift the focus away from that debate towards more practical issues, such as the increase of women’s effective freedom.
A matter of personal interest
What would such an approach mean for the subject at hand? Here, it might be useful to highlight that the possible existence of differences between the sexes in communication is not an issue per se. What is more problematic is that women’s lack of assertiveness –whether it is socially constructed or natural– could also affect their capacity, on one hand, to express their needs and interests and, on the other, to fight against the disadvantages that directly touch them. Having a clear, loud and assertive voice is one of the conditions necessary for expressing one’s own interest and taking a stance on one’s personal life and on collective issues. This also requires that women move away from the social norm on female higher empathy that states that they mainly listen to others’ needs, give to them and care about them. Being able to defend your interests requires listening to your selfish drives as much as to clearly articulate and voice these interests. Indeed, studies on human behaviour seem to indicate an overall tendency for selfishness to dominate when individuals act at the collective level. However, the general norm on female empathy could make it harder for women to openly express their selfish motives. Women, therefore, need to rediscover these natural selfish drives, particularly when engaging in social and political matters.
However, this ability to express personal needs does not mean that women should renounce a certain female ideal of communication. Still, it clearly means that women should not hesitate to adopt some of the classically ‘male’ features of communication. Women should be assertive, confident, and even a bit aggressive and competitive, since these are indispensable tendencies in current society. Supposing that one can thrive in the social and economic competition merely through softness, cooperation, empathy and collaboration is, indeed, a pure myth. Furthermore, in interpersonal exchanges, women should elaborate more efficient forms of non-verbal communication – which constitutes a huge part of overall communication. Again, none of this excludes that women develop their own ‘feminine’ approach to assertive communication.
Towards a ‘feminine’ way to speak up
But communication does not take place in a void. It is part of wider set of social interactions, themselves imbued with relations of power. Working on different norms about male and female language will not increase women’s ability to impact on social reality if this change is not related to broader forms of mobilisation. Language alone, whether male or female, is never enough to struggle against injustice. Men’s voices still generally have a larger impact on society, not only because they speak more and are more assertive, but also because men are systematically advantaged in relations of power. Therefore, women can use communication to improve their status only in so far as their discourse succeeds in impacting these relations of power. For this to happen, collective mobilisations, and ultimately, political change are necessary.
But to reach this goal, women need to find their own way of speaking more, louder and with more assertiveness. This could be through mixing “male” and “female” features of communication, both orally and in writing, in political, intellectual and artistic spheres. In written pieces, in particular, imbalances of power tend to fade away, while boldness and assertiveness can replace shyness and insecurities. The pen has always been a powerful sword. All the more when it is held by the weak and dominated, whose voices are usually silenced or ignored.
 Dr in Politics (Research associate to Oxford University), Dancer and Author. Last book: Un chapeau rose, Edilivre, Paris, 2017.
 See some of the studies mentionned here: Amanda Duberman, ‘Women don’t talk more than men. They’re more likely to collaborate’, Huffington Post, 31/07/2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/women-men-talk-more_n_5591454.html;
 Sophie Heine, Genre ou liberté, vers une féminité repensée, Academia, Louvain-La-Neuve, 2015
 Deborah Cameron, The Myth of Mars and Venus, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.
 See for instance Simon Baron Cohen, The Essential Difference, Penguin, London, 2004
 Cordelia Fina, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
 Too many gender specialists tend to focus on that debate; for an analysis of some of the shortcomings of their
approach, see: Sophie Heine, “The EU approach to gender: limitations and alternatives”, European Policy Brief, No. 40,
December 2015, http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/EPB40-gender1.pdf
 On the importance of using selfishness in order in order to trigger mobilisation and political change, see : Sophie Heine, Pour un individualisme de gauche, Lattès, Paris, 2013 and Sophie Heine, “Social Change in Progressive Thought: Analysis and Propositions”, Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol 17 (3), 2012.