EVERY time I am in the company of women in business or government, I am reminded of a quote by Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand: “The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” I say this with a tone of endearment to offset the perceptions of people outside the circle who might be conjuring images of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada or even Ursula in The Little Mermaid in their minds.
While Rand might have said that in a context that could have been more rebellious than frivolous, I use that quote in a fun, irreverent way that can only be best understood by women who are comfortable in their own skin.
Having had many opportunities to meet with power women over lunch, I often marvel at how effortlessly these women can talk about business and the latest handbag they acquired in the same breath, or about the latest tax
imposition by the Bureau of Internal Revenue while discussing blind items not in showbusiness, but in court cases. That these women have remained relevant to their industries, despite this seeming lack of focus (at least, in meetings) can, perhaps, be best attributed to the usual multitasking skills of women who just don’t talk about strategy the whole day, but just gets done what needs to get done, so there can have more time to talk about…other, more interesting things.
Several studies on how conversations are conducted among women and between men and women have been done. One particular abstract on the topic, titled “The talk of women friends,” by Fern L. Johnson and Elizabeth J. Aries in 1983, listed some conversational topics, where, they said, “the women [we] interviewed report that talk with their close friends creates a mosaic of noncritical listening, mutual support, enhancement of self-worth, relationship exclusiveness, and personal growth and self-discovery.”
Another abstract, this time on Jennifer Coates’s 1996 book Women Talk: Conversation Between Women Friends,
explored “a corpus of spontaneous conversation between friends,” where she noted how women used language to hedge, question or repeat, and used storytelling to discuss and evaluate social norms and construct personal identity. Coates also noted how “women friends draw on a collaborative model [that] enables them to construct talk jointly, drawing on poststructuralist theory to show the ways in which women’s talk constructs and maintains gender, and constructs and maintains friendship.”
It would be interesting to know, on the other hand, what topics would be discussed when men would be present and what kind of group dynamics would result from the mixed-gender presence. A 2007 study on perception of expertise based on gender by Phillips and Thomas-Hunt noted how discussions are seen as social, rather than information, exchanges. “When groups convene, their members seek social goals, such as acceptance, status and power, not just informational goals. Under some conditions, these social goals prevent individuals with expertise from sharing it, and other group members from accepting it.” Expertise, according to the study, depends not on actual performance, but on the perception of the members of the group. This study further show how women would always be seen as less of an expert than men and this affects their confidence, which leads to self-censorship and, thus, reinforces stereotypes. Women’s expertise is set at a higher standard than men’s, requiring women to work harder to prove themselves, which is something that can be counterproductive, as self-promotion is also not accepted for women in
the way that it is for men.
Another possible research topic worth looking into is what the language of competition might be like among power women—in this case, coming from different businesses, getting together in one group. Is it any different when we are all chief executive officers or owners of our respective companies versus corporate women battling among themselves for that rare seat in the board? The answer may seem obvious, but worth validating, if only to address real issues on the extent of power women stereotyping or, at the minimum, even power-women classification.
These are initial reflections I have put together as a result of putting on my anthropological lenses whenever I have business lunches. There is much to learn from the simple topics of conversations and observations on how easily and comfortably women can weave in and out, move from one topic to another, and with whoever, wherever. That kind of flexibility and spirit are strengths that may seem more natural for women, and may be confusing to some men.
Chiqui Escareal-Go is the president of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. (www.mansmith.net), vice president of the Women’s Business Council Philippines (www.womenbiz.ph), MAP CSR committee vice chairman, and a member of the Business and Professional Women Makati (BPW Makati).
This article reflects her opinion and is not the official stand of BPW Makati. For more information on BPW Makati,