I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I regularly teach public speaking to college students. I’ve been significantly revising my syllabus in anticipation of this fall’s classes, so this article from Forbes, in addition to pinging my feminist radar, also has relevance for what I jokingly refer to as “my career.”* I like to use current events and articles to prompt discussion, rather than a text book that I know my students won’t read, but I don’t think this one is going to make the cut.
The piece, “Ten Body Language Mistakes Women Leaders Make,” in addition to being poorly titled (they’re not all body language mistakes) is basically a series of bullet points with the words “act like a well-socialized Western woman” behind them. Are you a female in the business world? Whoops. You’re gonna have to fix that.
I do agree with a couple of the author’s points: particularly up-talking? That thing? That particularly young women do? Where they break up their sentences? And inflect each of the phrases as if it were a question? BLOODY CHEEZITS IN A BEAR TRAP, CUT THAT SHIT OUT RIGHT NOW. And nobody likes a limp handshake. (Or a knuckle-crusher.) And I know from recent experience that dead fish hands are hardly a feminine specialty.
Other offenses, according to Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.: Acting “girlish” (twirling hair, biting fingers), “excessive” smiling and nodding–but no real word on what qualifies as excessive–flirting (do “women leaders” do this?), being “overly expressive.” (I suppose “bloody cheezits in a bear trap, cut that shit out right now” would be a problem.) I have to ride my students, who are largely mortified to speak in public, to get beyond a mumbled monotone. That seems like a non-problem to me, but the inclusion of this description
While a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is comprised primarily of males).
makes clear that the real problem isn’t tilting your head in acquiescence, but simply Working While Female. An animated man is engaging or entertaining. An emotionally labile man is inspiring, or “in touch with his feelings.” But a woman gets demonstrative? Especially in front of men? Bitches be crazy.
With the exception of up-talking (which men do, too, but less consistently), I could easily come up with a “male” counterpart for each of these mistakes. I hate hair-twiddling, but it’s certainly no more problematic (or creepy) than the incessant pocket-fiddling my male students do. The author of this list advises women to interrupt more, and maybe that’s good advice. But I would love it if my male students would observe simple classroom decorum by interrupting less and raising their damn hands when they have something to say. Women do tend to compress themselves physically, standing with their feet close together and their arms at their sides, or even crossed in front of them. Not ideal, but not really less professional or distracting than the arm-swinging, podium-thumping, side-to-side shuffle that is common to many of my dudents. Smiling too much? Scowling at everything. (I believe when women do this, it’s called “bitchface.”) Shall I go on?
There are sins a-plenty, and a lot of them are decidedly gendered. C’est la vie. But what isn’t la vie is assuming that a woman’s behavior, coached and coerced and ingrained over decades, is innately “a mistake,” or utterly incompatible with a professional environment. Are there more and less appropriate ways of behaving in the working world? Of course. Is there only one manly world to work in? Not even in Forbes-land.
*”Jokingly” because I cannot actually afford to keep teaching and am actively looking for different work so I can pay my damn bills. *headtilt!*