Language and leadership

This recent article in the Toronto Globe + Mail suggests that women tend to use “we” more than “I” and that this works to their detriment in terms of leadership. According to author Leah Eichler, founder of Femme-o-Nomics,”we,” when used by a woman, may indicate a lack of confidence or indecisiveness, a need to defer to others for decisions. Men, who are most often responsible for promoting staff up to leadership positions, recognize and value the “I” language they associate with male leadership, even when it is used by women. However, the writers quoted in the article also say that this is changing, that management styles are becoming more horizontal (favouring more collaborative sounding “we” language) whether used by men or women.

Is it the language itself that is at issue here or is it more a matter of who is using which terms? Would a man using “we” instead of “I” be similarly regarded as weak leadership material? What happens where senior managers responsible for promotion are women? Might a man using the word “we” be taken to be assuming too much, exceeding his authority by over-identifying with the group or the organization?

To ask the question is to acknowledge only that gender politics in management is complicated. It is no longer a world of uniform magisterial codes where one pronoun, singular or plural, fits all.

For reference

Books mentioned in the Globe article:

Deborah Tannen, Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, How Women Mean Business

Lynn Harris, Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations,

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