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Bridging the differences

During a presentation on bridging the differences between men and women, women had a hard time bridging their own

Communication rituals

Together with Margreet van Rixtel of Topvrouw.nl I delivered a talk for a women's network within a male dominated organisation. The topic was 'Bridging the Differences'. Men were invited as well. Among the 50 or so women, 8 men attended.

Our presentation focused on the differences in communication rituals between men and women, on body language and on the hazards of being in a token position. We managed to create an atmosphere in which people felt invited to speak their minds. Lively discussions, especially in smaller groups, took place.

Think alike

We were about to end the presentation when something striking happened. A woman said: 'If I was offered a high position with an equally high salary at a company that has not a single woman in their management team or Board, I would turn down the offer.' Immediately other women responded: 'Why? You would be in the position to make a change.' The first woman quietly stated: 'If in this day and age a company still has no females in higher positions, something is wrong with that company. I wouldn't want to work there.' Now the accusation started: 'You could make a change for a lot of women and you refuse to do that'. In other words, you are not supportive of women, you are letting women down.

Deborah Tannen

Funny that during a presentation on bridging the differences between men and women, women end up accusing each other. Apparently there seems to be an unspoken assumption that all women should think and behave alike. This, in fact, is a female communication pattern. From early childhood on girls seek consensus and harmony. The ones you harmonize with most, become your friends. On Youtube you can find film fragments of social linguist Deborah Tannen explaining more on this subject.

When a woman speaks her mind and it is not accepted by her peers, they will accuse and attack her in order to make her conform to the group. If she still refuses, exclusion from the group may be the consequence. To most women, that is the worst ordeal.

Differences are a chance to grow

This mechanism secures the group, it also prevents women from growing into authentic individuals. In short, we unconsciously keep each other confined. If women ever want to have an equal representation in top positions, they should allow each other to develop. What is needed is support. That is different from having the same opinions. It rather means challenging one another, questioning each other's viewpoints with the intention to strengthen one another. Hence differences of opinion offer us a chance to grow. If we can see it this way, we might even be able to go for a drink together afterwards...

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