“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” — James C. Humes, American author and former presidential speechwriter.
In 2016, a Peterson Institute for International Economics survey of over 21,000 firms from 91 countries found that increasing female leadership representation in profitable firms from 0 to 30 percent is correlated with a 15% increase in net revenue margin. Business organisations have recognized this statistic and women are being empowered to take over leadership positions in reputed corporations, with Indra Nooyi heading Pepsi Co, Robyn Denholm as the first-ever female chairperson at Tesla, and Sheryl Sandberg as the COO at Facebook. Women are heading smaller organisations and a number of indie brands today, are entirely managed by women. Racial and gender diversity has proven to have a positive impact on a company’s market performance, while having female representation on the board of directors has improved a company’s financial performance.
With an upsurge in the representation of women in positions of power, developing leadership skills has become more important than ever.
Developing effective communication has helped me feel empowered. I have struggled with a pathological stammer, which made communication difficult for me. Being a woman only toughened the journey further since most educational institutions are complacent about eliminating their sexist pedagogical techniques. As a young woman, my political opinions were undermined and often dismissed. Meanwhile, if a male student voiced his political opinions, he was encouraged and often provided respective opportunities. This made learning an exhausting experience for me, since my opinions were not only ignored, but my stammer also obstructed the transmission of these opinions. Over a course of time, I have evolved. I have made stylistic decisions that have helped me cope with my stammer and vocalize my ideas. I have learnt to speak more articulately, assertively, and above all, I have learnt to speak the way I want to. I have accepted that I cannot be a leader unless I communicate my propositions effectively. It is a tedious process, but the role of speech in leadership cannot be neglected and hence, all of us irrespective of gender, need to consciously develop our ability to communicate. Being a woman often creates certain obstructions that men don’t have to face. For instance, the possibility of being perceived as “dominating” is far greater among women than men, because when men portray behavior that could potentially qualify as “dominating”, it is not as detectable because men are conventionally expected to be dominating; such difficulties are seldom addressed and having any additional hardship such as a stammer, will only add to it. In such situations, it is necessary to understand that we, as women may also have implicit biases against ourselves and the process of improvement is much easier when one has faith in their own abilities.
As a woman myself, I’ve compiled a list of communication skills that we can develop, in order to facilitate effective communication and leadership.
1. Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to understand and manage emotions in order to communicate effectively. It is a skill that is incorporated through experience; it cannot be learned. Emotional intelligence primarily consists of: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. These constituents equip individuals to not only understand themselves, but also communicate their decisions to others. What helps women understand the emotional and psychological factors involved in corporate decision-making? According to a new study, women tend to have a higher EQ, which gives them an edge over men. If deployed correctly, emotion can be a useful tool for negotiation.
2. Articulation: A sign of good communication is clear, cohesive speech. It is important to be concise. One way to achieve this is to know the intention and direction of a conversation or an address. There has to be an understanding of ‘why’ you are saying something and what you intend to achieve through it. There has to be a certain structure to what is being said. While speaking, one has to be cautious of the pace and the modulation. Inarticulate speech not only makes it difficult to understand what is being conveyed, but it may also make a listener averse to the idea that is being presented. Furthermore, a lack of direction and foreseeable intent can often bore a listener. It is important to be a systematic orator.
3. Approachability: It is necessary for a leader to be approachable. The approachability of a leader depends upon their openness to questions, feedback, and criticism. It depends upon how cooperative an individual is. Employees should feel comfortable in approaching a leader with requests. Additionally, a leader needs to be available. This often acts as a hindrance for women, since they tend to be occupied with other activities. It is essential for women to strike a balance between their career and their household to ensure that neither of this is neglected. It is important to note that 43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time. This is because, the burden of parenthood and community is largely placed on a woman’s shoulders. Of course, the first step is to challenge and alter societal ideals of maternity and parenthood. However, these are long-term objectives. Corporations can adopt immediate measures to increase female representation and retention. Companies can support working mothers by providing freelance, project-oriented work with deadlines. They can provide succinct task descriptions, compensations, incentives, and clear deadlines to make the profession more task-oriented. One of the ways through which men can help women achieve this is by dissociating from toxic masculinity, gender roles, and conventional norms. It is essential to understand that if women intend to occupy positions of power, they will require a supportive backbone. Men need to counter their implicit and explicit biases, that act against women and actively advocate to erase gender gaps. “Men can support women by insisting on women’s rights and taking paternity leave, thereby leveling the playing field that penalizes women when they take maternity leave.”— Rachel Beider, Massage Outpost.
4. Assertion: It is necessary for any individual to be forthright about their opinions and ideas. To speak without hesitance, to not question the validity of their own decisions, and to not place their stance at a position lower than that of others. Assertion, in many parts, is derived through self confidence. It is important to demonstrate confidence and assertiveness, so that others can develop faith in your ability to deliver. However, it is equally important to not mistake assertion for aggression. Aggression can often make others lose trust in your commitments. For women, assertion is crucial. Conventionally, women have been placed at a position below men. Women need to evolve through these stereotypes and ensure that their gender does not determine the value of their ideas. This can be accomplished with support and cooperation from society, communities, political organisations and the law, media, and corporations. Women, as individuals, can ensure that they assert their rights and demand for what they deserve. Women in positions of leadership can ensure that they are assertive enough to be taken seriously and amiable enough to not offend the listener. Again, these alterations are not actionable unless they are complemented with proportionate change in the corporate and political environment; placing recommendations before women is beneficial, only if the work environment makes it possible for women to implement them.
5. Active listening: Listening is as much a part of communication as speaking is. Active listening involves listening twice as much as you speak. It involves summarizing and clarifying what someone has spoken by asking questions, rephrasing their statements, and taking effort to understand their message. The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood, and listening is a glaring necessity in corporate as well as political organisations. Active listening can be showcased through positive reinforcement, questioning, paraphrasing, and mirroring the speaker.
6. Modulation: It is important to understand that ‘how’ you say something matters almost as much as ‘what’ you say does. The tone, pitch, and inflection of your voice collectively determine the reception of your content. The tone of your voice depends on the amount of emotion that you’d like to induce into a conversation. Tonality also plays a crucial role in persuasion. You can adopt different tones depending upon what your ultimate goal is. According to Colin James, there are four vocal roles: Motivator- inspires others, Educator- informs others, Coach- issues instructions, and Colleague- tends to be chatty and casual. In professional environments, it is important for women to choose which vocal role is most suitable. This will help women utilize their emotional intelligence effectively, and also take advantage of their high-pitched, relatively shriller voices.
7. Non-verbal communication and body language: In any form of communication, information is transmitted through words, gestures, and body language. Non-verbal signals not only include tone of voice, but also include eye contact, facial expressions, silence, and hand, arm and leg postures. It is important for women to understand that verbal communication might not lead to direct results, if their body language is not in accordance with what is being said. Body language performs some basic functions within communication, such as:
Hence, in a workplace, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication can be used in coordination to establish credibility and make a point. Body language plays an essential role in communication, since it not only determines the conveyance of information, but also determines the reception. In a lot of ways, effective body language aids communication and makes it easier for the speaker to understand the listener’s cues.
Leadership skills such as a strategic vision, creativity and innovation, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and problem-solving are necessary. However, the most important and often neglected leadership skill is that of effective communication. Communication skills are the backbone of leadership. They are necessary to create influence not only within but also outside the organisation. Communication is more than speaking. When it comes to communication, people of all genders have their strengths and weaknesses. Women, in particular, need to develop certain communication skills to progress in a formal setup. Listed below are some of the skills that women can either develop or that women already possess and can adequately take advantage of.
There are other communication skills such as empathy, respect, open mindedness, and presence of mind which form a significant part of communication. However, these skills cannot be learnt immediately. They can be imbibed over a period of time.
As a woman myself, I have often sensed that a lack of command over communication skills tends to slow our progress. I have found myself in situations where I lacked a certain skill and such a deficiency covertly acted against me. In other instances, it was a skill that I did not recognize as a ‘skill’ per say. However, listening is a skill. Regulating the tone of your voice and deploying emotion appropriately is a skill. And, it is important to ensure that we refine these skills so that we can utilize them suitably.
In leadership positions, women struggle with being taken seriously; science has provided a number of justifications for this. Psychology researchers at Abertay University in Scotland conducted a study that was recently published in the journal Perception. The study proved that women wearing heavy makeup are seen as incompetent and therefore, are not taken as seriously. However, the study also stated that a moderate amount of makeup might even increase the level of perceived competence in women. However, I don’t think makeup can be a determining factor in corporate performance. It can certainly act as a secondary, subconscious factor, but it cannot be one of the rubrics for evaluating women. The principal reason why women are not “taken seriously” has to do with how we convey what is to be taken seriously.
Academic and corporate spaces have always had a reputation for being sexist. The sexism arises from an implicit bias against women. I’ve been a part of academic institutions that covertly practiced sexism. This makes leadership tougher for women, particularly within such institutions. One of the easiest ways to combat such a bias, is to ensure better communication. Communication is what forms judgement. Within debates and discussions, it is necessary for women to ensure that they are not being sidelined. In male-dominated spaces, women have a contrasting perspective to offer. Women can utilize this to their benefit. We need to ensure that our perspective is heard and respected. I have experienced that when we speak articulately, when we take time to explain our ideas and answer questions about the same, we are often perceived to be competent. This perception is formed on the basis of how we present ourselves. Women need to avoid using submissive body language and occupy the space that they require. Women should avoid using deprecating language while speaking about their achievements. Generally, leaders speak about their achievements to establish credibility. However, a self-deprecating or devaluing tone might create an opposite effect.
The world is moving towards equality. Education has become accessible and education systems across the world have adopted gender-sensitive measures to ensure inclusivity within curricula and classrooms. The representation of women in fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has increased, and Employee Research Groups (ERGs) are supporting women who are already a part of the field. Simultaneously, there is an increase in the appearance of female names such as Gertrude B. Elion and Grace Hopper in school textbooks.
The mainstream media, private corporations, and communities are acknowledging the unpaid labor contributed by women. Organisations such as the World Health Organisation, London School of Health and Tropical Medicine, and the World Bank Group have adopted a number of measures to reduce the prevalence of violence against women. The political landscape has changed with an increased number of women participating in active politics, by getting nominated for elected office and by conducting successful campaigns; in countries like Rwanda, women make up 61.3% of the lower house and 38.5% of the upper house, France is one of the 49 countries that have statutory quotas or reserved seats for women. In the last 10 years, the number of women holding seats in houses of national parliament in South Asia has risen from 7% to 18%. Young girls and women are engaging in formulation of public policy and women’s voices have found a place in the mainstream discourse; women are voicing their opinions, questioning the establishment, and actively communicating their ideas.
In conclusion, it is crucial for all organisations and institutions to ensure that communication and public speaking is addressed within school curricula and business training programs. There have to be systems and mechanisms to ensure that women receive appropriate training to develop and enhance their communication skills. Special facilities need to be provided to women with different needs. This is because, the representation of women is unequally distributed between different communities. Thus, different women will have different needs since they are accustomed to different environments and different perceptions. Organisations should regularly assess their internal communication strategy and be aware of the company culture. An ‘open door’ policy has often helped women feel safer and communicate more freely in the workplace; companies can adopt such a policy considering the increase in female representation in the workforce and the need to render according to the needs of women employees.
In the end, it is necessary for women to develop a positive attitude towards each other, even if they find themselves in positions of competition. It is necessary for us to support each other and grow together.