Social Science


When I heard the same remark twice in one week about two different women, I knew there was something going on. “Before I came to work for Ann,” a man who reports to her told me, “everybody warned me to watch out. They called her the dragon lady. But I don’t know what they were talking about. I’ve always found her great to work with.” A few days later, a woman at another company commented about the woman she works for, “I’ve heard people call Marie the dragon lady. But I’ve never seen anything to justify that. She’s the best boss I’ve ever worked for.” I wondered, Why the dragon lady? Not only was there nothing dragon-like about either Ann or Marie, but they were as different from one another as could be, in age, temperament, and personal style. The only thing they had in common was the “lady” part. Being women highly placed in their organizations seems to have caused people to look at them through conventional images of women in positions of authority. Our culture gives us a whole menagerie of stereotypical images of women: schoolmarm, head nurse, headmistress, doting mother, cruel stepmother, dragon lady, catwoman, witch, bitch.

An article about President Clinton’s health czar, Kristine M. Gebbie, began by saying she didn’t look like a czar, then went on to say she had the air of a head nurse. Although there is nothing inherently negative about being head nurse, the image this term evokes in our culture is decidedly negative: In the tradition of Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched, the villain in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , it suggests a woman who is arbitrarily authoritarian, life-killingly humorless, and stiffly unfeminine. It is no wonder the reporter did not think Gebbie looks like a czar, since a czar is always male. (Czarina doesn’t conjure up a comparable image of authority.) And it is no surprise that the role of someone who is going to take over a problem and solve it should be “czar”—a man who takes control and makes things happen. But why a “head nurse,” other than the fact that Gebbie herself was trained as a nurse, which surely was a factor. (If she were an M.D., would she call to mind a “head doctor”?) The writer explains, “There is something at once no-nonsense and fussy about her—her erect posture, her precise and proper answers, her tendency to correct an interviewer’s questions.” Hmmm. Shouldn’t a czar stand erect and have a no- nonsense manner? Shouldn’t a czar give precise and proper answers? Correcting an interviewer’s questions seems a good way to maintain control when being

interviewed. But all these qualities took on a very different effect because they were found in a woman.

“Presto!” a newspaper announced in large type, summarizing an accompanying story. “A stuffy schoolmarm is a contender.” I began reading the article and learned that an Illinois gubernatorial candidate named Dawn Clark Netsch had won the Democratic nomination after she managed “to alter her image to a down-to-earth contender from that of a stuffy schoolmarm.” But further down, I was surprised to read that the “bookish” candidate, who had previously “talked too much” and sounded “like some kind of egghead,” had been a law professor at Northwestern University for eighteen years. This seemed to explain why she might be “bookish,” talk a lot, and be denigrated by some as an egghead. But none of these qualities is suggested by “schoolmarm,” which has different connotations entirely: stuffy, yes, but a strict disciplinarian rather than bookish, and small-minded rather than an egghead. Forced to choose between a professorial image, appropriate to the qualities the paper attributed to her as well as to her profession, and “schoolmarm,” suggested by her gender, the newspaper went for the gender.

Newsweek”s review of Margaret Thatcher’s memoir about her years as British prime minister began this way:

For 11½ years, Margaret Thatcher presided over the British government like a strong-minded headmistress. She reshaped the economy, broke the unions and starched up Britain’s languid posture in world affairs. Through it all, she thoroughly dominated the “wets” in her own cabinet, clobbering them with a metaphorical handbag whenever they showed too little spine in the defense of conservative ideology—or too much in opposing her will.

Images of authority come drenched in gender. Even when describing situations that have nothing to do with gender—for example, shoring up Britain’s “posture in world affairs”—by choosing the verb “starched up,” the writer indirectly evoked a housewife doing the laundry, if not a head nurse stiff in a starched uniform. The image of Thatcher “clobbering them with her metaphorical handbag” undercuts the force of her actions, even as it gives her credit for attacking her opponents. A woman clobbering men with her handbag is an object of laughter, not fear or admiration.


Part of the reason images of women in positions of authority are marked by their gender is that the very notion of authority is associated with maleness. This can result simply from appearance. Anyone who is taller, more heftily built, with a lower- pitched, more sonorous voice, begins with culturally recognizable markers of authority, whereas anyone who is shorter, slighter, with a higher-pitched voice begins with a disadvantage in this respect. (Here again, cultural convention dovetails with physical attributes. Even before puberty, when boys’ and girls’ voice boxes are equal in size, young girls seem to raise the pitch of their voices and boys to lower theirs, according to psycholinguist Jacqueline Sachs.) Barbara Mikulski, the United States senator from Maryland who stands 4’11”, carries a footstool with her to public speaking engagements, so that the lecterns that add authority to speakers who stand behind them do not hide her from sight. With reference to her senate colleagues who are tall and silver-haired, Senator Mikulski has remarked, “They come with the image.” This does not mean that she cannot speak in an authoritative way. Those who have heard her know that she can, and her extraordinary success as a senator testifies to how effective she is. But she doesn’t start with this advantage.

The association of authority with maleness goes deeper than associations with physical appearance. It is pervasive in linguistic systems as well, as observed by linguist Kunihiko Harada, who noted this phenomenon with reference to Japanese “particles”— little words that have no meaning in themselves but are often added to Japanese sentences to give them the right emphasis. (There is nothing in English quite comparable, but the effect is something like ending sentences with “y’know,” “okay?,” “isn’t it?,” or “right?” The difference is that most Japanese sentences include such particles, and sentences will often seem odd without them.) Many researchers studying the use of particles in Japanese conversation have claimed that certain particles are used by males, others by females. For example, M. Chikamatsu gives the example of a woman saying “I don’t want to eat anything”:

Nani-mo itadakitaku nai no. anything eat (polite) not female particle.

As the translations show, “Nani-mo” means “anything,” “itadakitaku” is a polite way of saying “eat,” “nai” means “not,” and the little word, or particle, “no “ at the end is a polite softener associated with female speech.

In the actual conversations Harada studied between a Japanese man who ran a language school and a young woman teacher who worked for him, the male boss used female particles. When telling the woman that a photography store had to be found to develop a photograph in black-and-white rather than color (as we saw in Chapter

Three, an indirect way of getting her to volunteer to find such a store), the boss ended his sentence with the female particle “no.” Harada believes he did this to avoid seeming too authoritarian when assigning a task. On the other hand, there are other situations in which he used particles expected of men and considered “male”—when he was making decisions or authoritative statements. For example, when the woman subordinate suggested that they wait for a certain piece of information before sending out a mailing, he decided to take her suggestion but stated his decision using the male particle “ka”:

Jaa, chotto matu-ka. Well, a little wait-male particle.

In other words, using the male particle is part of what made his decision sound authoritative.

The Japanese boss using female particles to soften requests and male particles to sound authoritative tells us something about the force of “male” and “female” particles. Femaleness is associated with softeners, mitigation, and politeness, whereas maleness is associated with authority. This means that women who want to sound authoritative must risk sounding male. (It also means that men who want to sound polite must risk sounding female.)

Realizing that the very image of authority is associated with masculinity makes it easier to understand the images of professional women in our society.

This is a quiz. Name all the movies you can think of in which a major character is an ambitious career woman who has risen high in her field. And now: In how many of those movies is this character a likable, sympathetic, warm, and loving person?

In the enormously popular movie Fatal Attraction, a dichotomy between a good woman and an evil one was prepared for in the very beginning: The good one is a wife who stays at home, and the evil mistress is a career woman he meets through work. Recall, too, that strange word that was applied to Hillary Clinton—“careerist.” What, exactly, is a “careerist”? Is it, on the model of “sexist,” someone who discriminates on the basis of careers? Or like “feminist,” someone who supports the rights of careers? It is used, of course, to describe a woman who is so focused on her career that she neglects her family or shirks the responsibility of having a family at all. But when you get right down to it, it is just a word that brings to mind the negative image of a woman who has a career rather than a job.

When I asked people for their impressions of the men and women they worked with and for, I noticed a pattern: When they commented on women in managerial positions—but never when they commented on men—people often said, “She’s

abrasive,” or, just as often, “She’s not abrasive,” “not aggressive,” or “has a soft touch.” It is one thing to describe how you think someone is— “abrasive,” “aggressive,” and so on. But why would people mention what someone is not? It makes sense only against the expectation that the person would be that way. So it seems that when a woman is in a high position, there is an expectation that she will be unfeminine, negative, or worse. When she isn’t, it is perceived as worth mentioning. And these prevalent images ambush professional women as they seek to maintain their careers as well as their personal lives—and their femininity.


Even in organizations where the hierarchy is clearly laid out in an organization chart, actual authority has to be negotiated day-today, moment-to-moment. Whether those in authority are trusted, respected, or seen as obstacles to be contended with and gotten around depends on how they negotiate authority for themselves, and whether others reinforce or undercut their efforts—which may or may not be a reaction to their own behavior. You will have a hard time finding your footing if others are jiggling the platform on which you are trying to stand.

Individuals in positions of authority are judged by how they enact that authority. This poses a particular challenge for women. The ways women are expected to talk— and many (not all) women do talk—are at odds with images of authority. Women are expected to hedge their beliefs as opinions, to seek opinions and ad-vice from others, to be “polite” in their requests. If a woman talks this way, she is seen as lacking in authority. But if she talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion, interrupts others, goes on at length, and speaks in a declamatory and aggressive manner, she will be disliked. Our language is rich in words to describe such unwomanly women— words that have been hurled at many prominent women in positions of authority such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Geraldine Ferraro, and Margaret Thatcher, as well as innumerable women in offices, factories, and studios around the country. Looking closely at how women in positions of authority use language to do their jobs— and how others respond to them—sheds light on our images of women as well as our understanding of authority.

A woman I interviewed owns her own physical-therapy business. There are half a dozen other physical therapists who operate out of her offices, under the name of her company. She pays the rent, buys advertising, and manages the office. She is also the oldest and most experienced practitioner in her group, and she is the one who learns

new techniques at conferences and seminars and teaches them to the others. Most important, she invited the other therapists to join her business and can ask them to leave if she feels they are not working out. When I asked her general questions about her experiences dealing with the other therapists, she repeatedly volunteered that she does not take an authoritarian stance. “I treat them like equals,” she said, and then, perhaps sensing that the word “like” in “treat them like equals” implies pretense, she added, “They are my equals. They have the same degree I have. That’s why I get along with them, and that’s why they like me.” She felt that her method worked well with the women who worked with (and for) her.

When I talked to people about their work lives, I asked them, among other things, what they think management is all about, and what makes a good manager or a poor one. When I put this question to women in positions of authority, one of the most frequent statements they offered to explain what makes them good managers is that they do not act like an authority figure—insofar as an authority figure is thought to be authoritarian. They told me that they don’t lord it over subordinates, don’t act as though they are better than those who report to them. I began to wonder why women in authority are so concerned not to appear authoritarian—not to appear as if they think they are superior or are putting themselves in a one-up position, even though that is exactly the position they are in.


Women physicians walk this fine line between exercising authority and not appearing too authoritarian, as shown by the research of Nancy Ainsworth-Vaughn, the linguist who tape-recorded physicians talking to patients in private practice. In the study I referred to in Chapter Three, Ainsworth-Vaughn investigated how topics were changed when male and female doctors spoke to their patients. At one end of a continuum were cases in which a doctor got the patient’s agreement before moving to a new topic. For example:

[Doctor and patient are going over the results of some previous tests.)

Doctor: 1 think you’ve got all of this. Patient: I’ve got all of that. Doctor: All right. Patient: Yeah.

Doctor: Okay. Patient: Um. Doctor: All right. And this urine is spilling protein.

At the other end of the continuum were cases in which the doctor switched topics without getting verbal agreement from the patient, or with only a minimal link such as the word “okay”:


Dr. M had suggested possibly waiting a month. And then, there’s times in which I have very (good rest) and then there are times when I can’t get any rest because I’m too sore. I have to lay on my back in which I’m not comfortable lying on my back, I like to lay on my sides.

Doctor: Okay, when are we going to do another CT scan?

Ainsworth-Vaughn found that the men doctors in her study moved on to new topics without getting the patient’s verbal agreement almost as often as they got the patient’s agreement. The ratio was 1.4 to 1. The women doctors were much more likely to get the patient’s agreement before changing topics: Their ratio was 5 to 1. Ainsworth- Vaughn feels that linguistic behavior such as this helps explain why a 1984 study found that both male and female patients were more satisfied with interactions with women doctors than with men doctors. But such behavior also means that the women doctors are constructing a different “demeanor” for them-selves as doctors—creating an image of “doctor” as less in control than those who set the agenda for talk without getting the patient’s agreement as often.

The term “demeanor” was used by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe the way we show the world the qualities we want others to believe we have. Those in positions of authority must speak in ways that create the proper demeanor for someone in their position. Studies showing that women and men tend to speak differently in the role of doctor (bearing in mind, as always, that the differences are only a matter of degree and may reflect only a small percentage of their behavior as doctors) suggest that they have different senses of the qualities that should go along with being in that position.


A particularly interesting study of how women and men tend to use language to create an authoritative stance was conducted by socio-linguist Frances Lee Smith. Smith was

interested in how women and men perform in the role of a preacher giving a sermon. She set about comparing the practice sermons performed by students in a preaching lab at a Baptist seminary. In giving a sermon, the preacher has to create authority by using words. Smith was especially interested in how the women would do this, because it was only recently that women began participating in the preaching lab at all. The history of the course reflects society’s changing attitudes and expectations. Before 1970, women at this seminary were not allowed to take the preaching lab. During the seventies, taking it was optional for women. In 1980, the course became a requirement for all students seeking the Master of Divinity degree, male and female. Smith realized that women in this course faced a particular challenge, since sermon textbooks themselves identify good preaching with male style, as reflected in the epigram with which she began her essay:

But the minister who is forceful uses language which rings with reality. He is never vague, ethereal, or effeminate…. He has the power to stab awake the conscience of men. He speaks like a man!

How then is a woman to give a good sermon? Should she too “speak like a man!”? In order to compare the sermons of ten men and four women in the course, Smith

got most of the students to agree to preach sermons on the same Bible story, “The Ten Lepers.” Then she re-corded their sermons and transcribed them. Rather than approaching her study by counting up linguistic features in the sermons, Smith began by determining the various “footings” the preachers took in relation to the texts they were interpreting. In other words, how did they position themselves in relation to the material they were preaching about and the task they were performing? She found that the men tended to foreground their authority by putting themselves “on record” as interpreters of the text and by calling attention to the fact that they were in the position of authority, interpreting the text for their listeners (who were, in fact, fellow students in the course).

To emphasize that the gender pattern is a tendency, not an absolute divide, Smith illustrates the “on-record” style with a sermon performed by a woman, Meg, but she notes that Meg was the only woman who adopted this style, along with four men. For example, Meg posed a question and then said, “I’ve done a lot of thinking about that, and I came up with several possible reasons.” At one point, she said, “I’d like to insert something here.” In discussing alternate translations for a particular passage, she rendered her own judgment: “And I believe that’s a better translation.” But Meg also said “we” and “us” often, including the listeners with her as ministers, rather than setting herself apart as the one who interprets Scripture.

The other three women found unique ways to interpret the text without putting themselves “on record,” that is, without calling attention to themselves as the one with authority to interpret the text. One woman spoke as if she were telling a story to a group of children. She began, “A little boy grew up in a Samaritan village. He had a happy childhood and sometimes his parents would take him to the neighboring villages, to market, or occasionally they might even go to Galilee to the sea for a vacation.” A second woman, rather than stepping outside the text to comment on it in her own voice, retold the story in a literary register. For example: “The clarity of the directions that God gave him were as a stab in his heart.” The fourth woman simply downplayed her authority by maintaining a “low-profile” stance.

Although Smith’s study is too small to form the basis of wide-ranging conclusions, it is fascinating in showing how speakers create their own demeanor of authority in how they speak, and in revealing a pattern by which the women in her study, with one important exception, managed to exercise their authority—preach a sermon and interpret a sacred text—without explicitly claiming authority to do so.


Linguist Elisabeth Kuhn examined the way male and female university professors established their authority, and she came to conclusions comparable to Smith’s for student preachers. Kuhn noticed that the American women professors she taped avoided giving their students direct orders at the beginning of the term. Instead, they spoke of “the requirements” of the course, as if these were handed down directly from the institution, and then told the students how they could fulfill the requirements. This is how three different women professors introduced their syllabi—written outlines of the courses:

“We are going to talk about the requirements.”

“I also tell you what the course requirements are, since I’m sure you’re interested in that. Um, there is going to be a mid-term and a final. Okay?”

“Now, let me say a little bit about the requirements for the course. I think if you look on the bottom of the second page, the cues are all there…. There are two papers, the first paper, ah, let’s see, is due it’s back here [while looking at her

sheet] at the beginning.”

Kuhn contrasts this with the male professors in her study who also handed out lists of requirements in the form of syllabi but made it explicit that the syllabi set forth decisions they personally had made:

“I have two midterms and a final. And I added this first mid-term rather early to get you going on reading, uh, discussions, so that you will not fall behind.”

“I want you to read NN’s XX. But I have not assigned a text-book for you to go out and buy because I assumed either you have a copy of XX which will include the NN, or you will be delighted to go out and provide yourself with it… . I’m gonna ask you to do one midterm, which will primarily be a reading check to make sure that you’re with it.”

Just as the women as preachers found ways to interpret the Scriptures without stating explicitly that they were doing so, the women professors used impersonal statements like, “There is going to be a midterm and a final,” and “There are two papers,” to avoid stating directly that they had devised and imposed the requirements. By using personal statements such as “I’m gonna ask you to do one midterm,” the men professors called attention to their authority by going “on record” as the ones setting the requirements for the course.


In all these studies, women were found to downplay their authority-while exercising it. It seems that creating their demeanor in a position of authority is yet another conversational ritual growing out of the goal of keeping everyone on an equal footing, at least insofar as appearances are concerned. 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 they maintain the proper demeanor—to fit their sense of what makes a good person, which entails not seeming to parade their higher status. If they have to tell others what to do, give information, and correct errors—all of which they will have to do on the job, especially if they are in a position of authority—they will expend effort to assure others that they are not pulling rank,

not trying to capitalize on or rub in their one-up position. In contrast, since men’s characteristic rituals have grown out of the assumption that all relationships are inherently hierarchical, it is not surprising that many of them either see less reason to downplay their authority or see more reason to call attention to it—to ward off inevitable challenges.

Choices of ways of speaking that highlight or downplay authority are not deliberate decisions that are thought through with each utterance but are rather habitual phrasings learned over time that become automatic, seemingly self-evidently appropriate ways to say what you mean.

I cannot emphasize enough that the appearance of equality I am referring to is ritual, not literal. I am not implying that individual women doubt their superior position in the hierarchy. The woman who owns her own physical-therapy business knows that she is the most experienced therapist in the group, and that she is the owner of the business. When she says, “I want them to feel independent, to maintain their self- esteem,” she is acknowledging that it is in her power to determine how independent they feel, since they are in fact dependent on her for their jobs. She simply feels it is appropriate not to rub their noses in their dependence.

Those whose characteristic conversational rituals place less value on denying hierarchy (including many men) may find women’s protests that they treat others as equals to be hypocritical. Accusations of hypocrisy are often a sign that cultural differences are at work; it is the universal impression one gets from observing those whose rituals are unfamiliar. “Hypocrisy” is acting in a way that is not a sincere reflection of how you feel. In other words, the way it seems “natural” to talk and the way you see someone talking don’t match up. Though this could certainly be the result of true hypocrisy—putting on an act for some ulterior motive—it is also the unavoidable impression made when people have different ideas of how it is “natural” to talk, given a particular context and set of emotions.

Another liability for women in authority is that if they do not talk in ways that highlight the power of their position, they are more vulnerable to challenges to it. Like many conversational rituals common among women, talking as if “we’re all equals” but still expecting to receive the respect appropriate to the higher-status position depends on the participation of the other person to respect that position. The president of a women’s college had a long and difficult meeting with a student who protested her choice of commencement speaker. Finally, the president said, “What it comes down to is that you don’t accept my right to make this decision, after considering your point of view and everyone else’s.” The student thought about it and agreed. “When I see you on campus after hours dressed informally, I forget about your position,” she said. “If you were an older white man, it would be easier.” In addition to dressing

informally when she went to her office evenings and week-ends, the president probably also spoke in ways that did not continually create a stance of authority, and this no doubt contributed to the student’s forgetting the power of her position.


Part of the reason that many women in positions of authority speak in ways that downplay rather than emphasize the power of their position is simply an expression of the ethics characteristic of many women’s conversational rituals that I discussed in Chapter Two: the desire to restore balance to a conversation and take into account the effect of one’s words on the other person. Whereas one might expect the person in the subordinate position to take more care about not offending a boss, research has found that women in superior positions often take more care to avoid offending when talking to subordinates than to superiors.

Speech communication researchers Karen Tracy and Eric Eisenberg devised a business letter that contained a number of errors. They invited thirteen male and eleven female college students to role-play informing coworkers of the mistakes in the letter—in other words, to deliver criticism. They then examined their results to see how much effort the speakers spent trying to avoid hurting the feelings of the person they were criticizing. A way of delivering criticism that evidenced minimal concern with the other’s feelings began like this:

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