Class at the Office

The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They’d probably live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child.
— Denise McKenzie
photo: alex.byworth, used with creative commons license

photo: alex.byworth, used with creative commons license

Denise McKenzie has been working as a corporate lawyer for 20 years. But she says even today she can still feel ill at ease at work. For one thing, she’s an African-American woman in a legal landscape dominated by white men. She says people are often 'shocked' when they meet her. Also, her background is far removed from anything most of her colleagues have experienced, even second-hand. Here’s a 14 second audio clip where she talks about that:

Feeling 'other' at the place where you spend most of your waking hours can take a toll. At one point during our interview Denise half-laughed, saying she 'wouldn't recommend' the path she'd taken from an inner city school to UCLA to an engineering career and now corporate law. Yet this path has enabled her daughter to have a totally different kind of life than she had, with excellent educational opportunities. Opportunities Denise sorely wishes more inner city kids could take advantage of.

In the latest episode of The Broad Experience we'll be talking about career, race, and class. The US is more coy about class than Britain, but as one of my guests pointed out:

It’s clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead - or don’t.

My guests in this show both feel they've left working-class backgrounds behind, but still sometimes flail in the white-collar world. I bet this feeling sometimes works the other way, too. I remember how awkward I felt at a chocolate factory job during college. I was glaringly aware of my privileged background as I tried to find common ground with the older woman who had worked at the factory for years, and was kindly helping me avoid a chocolate backup on the conveyor belt. It may have been the first time I truly thought about the opportunities my education would give me.

Voice and Power

The difference between men and women is that men will speak out and pretend to be confident. Women will only speak out when they are confident.
— Lynda Spillane
Voice coach Lynda Spillane (r) with Kristy Wallace, president of Ellevate

Voice coach Lynda Spillane (r) with Kristy Wallace, president of Ellevate

When I hear I can attend an event starring Margaret Thatcher’s voice coach, I’m there.

I grew up in England during Thatcher’s long reign as prime minister, which stretched from 1979 to 1990. I remember she wore skirt suits with fussy ‘80s blouses, she wielded a capacious handbag, and she had that famous voice. The low pitch, the emphasis, the measured tones. It was made fun of a lot (as was the handbag) but boy did it make her distinctive. People listened when she spoke.

Lynda Spillane has worked with a lot of statesmen and women over the years, including more recently President Obama. I was fascinated to hear her talk about communication and public speaking at an Ellevate event recently. Women’s voices have become a controversial topic. There’s been a backlash in the US against widespread criticism of upspeak, vocal fry, and girlish voices. The backlash comes from women saying, “Enough – this is me. And this criticism is sexist.”

My own listeners are divided. When I produced my last show about women’s communication styles, about half the comments I got on Facebook were from professional women who firmly believed in hiring a vocal coach like Spillane to improve your voice and communication skills. The other half shot back, ‘I am who I am, the world should accept me for that. Why would I change myself to fit in with a sexist workplace?’ They saw changing their voice and style as becoming ‘more male’, and they rejected that idea.

I asked Spillane about those critics and she replied, “That’s ridiculous - it’s got nothing to do with being male. I would ask, what’s your goal?”

Spillane and the other half of my correspondents are adamant: if your goal is to persuade people, to have them receive your message, you need to speak in a way that gets them to listen. 

If they’re hung up on a particularly high voice, a garbled delivery, or a voice filled with upspeak or vocal fry, they won’t hear your message. Sure, you could argue that’s their problem. But if communicating is part of your job, as it is most people’s, why wouldn’t you want to be persuasive?

This is why I’ve always been interested in public speaking, even though it still terrifies me. I’m a keen communicator and I want people to listen. I want to engage with them.

If you feel the same way, here are a few pointers from Spillane. She says:

  • People talk too quickly
  • They don’t speak loudly enough
  • Public speaking is different from private speaking – you have to break sentences up and project your voice
  • You need to use pauses

I learned about those last two points when I was making my own foray into this world several years ago. When you’re speaking in a public setting you do need…to…slow…down. It feels unnatural at first but it works.

Finally, to another stateswoman. Ellevate president Kristy Wallace brought up Hillary Clinton and her voice, which is widely felt to be harsh, even if the audience saw much of that criticism of it as sexist.

Here’s what Spillane had to say:

“Hillary has a very masculine voice…It’s not just a question of it being deep. It’s got a very masculine sound to it – and that’s because she’s never learned to speak properly from her diaphragm.”

As every voice student knows, it’s all about the breath.

“I think a lot of people don’t relate that well to her because of that,” she concluded. “They perceive her to be cold and distant because of it.”

It’s a bit late for Clinton to take lessons now, she said. Why would she? But she added anyone else who needs to persuade others as part of her or his job should view the voice as a powerful tool – one that can be honed for success.

Do You Ask For More?

Women are more likely to take ‘no’ as no.
— Sara Laschever
Photo by Digital Vision./Photodisc / Getty Images
Photo by Digital Vision./Photodisc / Getty Images

Every time I see another story about women and negotiation I wonder if it isn't overkill. I've done several of these pieces myself. As the years go by and there's more and more coverage of how women are less apt to negotiate than men, and how they're judged when they do, I think, surely this topic is covered now - women and men know about this. We don't need to keep talking about it.

But we do. 

Last week I attended a conference put on by the Negotiation Institute - its entire focus was women and negotiation. There was a vast, freezing hotel ballroom full of women keen to hear more. Then last night I watched a great panel discussion at CUNY Journalism School - it was about women, pay and parity in journalism. Again the topic of negotiation came up as a major reason why female journalists are paid less than their male counterparts. Each woman on the panel had experience herself of either a) asking for less than she could have or b) accepting an offer immediately instead of negotiating. They added that along with this negotiation gap comes a confidence gap. Men generally barrel in describing in robust terms how they'll attack the job. Women are much more self-deprecating, using the conditional tense, i.e. 'I think I could do it' - a far cry from the self-assured guy.

Confidence is a whole topic to itself, but it's part of what you may need to fake to negotiate. Women are often perceived differently (less positively) than men when they ask for more - especially if they push hard. But just because that's the case, it doesn't mean they shouldn't bother. I've said this before but if you buy a copy of Ask For It by Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock, it could change your life. Seriously. It's written for women but would be an excellent read for anyone who finds this tough. 

Only 42% of people have asked for a raise, but of those, 75% get one.
— Lydia Frank, PayScale

One panelist talked about going for a huge job - the firm really wanted her - and she was asked what salary she required. She called her sister for advice, and the sister said she must ask for the same salary as the guy she was replacing. The candidate balked at that. How could she? He had so much more experience, years at the company, and so on. Her sister stuck to her guns: "Don't you dare undercut yourself - you'll be doing his job." She asked for his number and got it.

The panelists pointed out that while so many women think, "I can't ask for that - it's too much," the company may end up hiring a more expensive person because they think he or she is superior. We equate 'expensive' with 'good'. 

That said, as Sara Laschever said when moderating, you need to aim high and ask for a number that makes you slightly nauseous but doesn't make you giggle. But whatever you ask for, argue for it in terms of what you bring to the table. Keep things focused on what you've achieved for the company.

And finally, they mentioned the importance of persistence. In their experience, women are far more likely than men to take 'no' as no. I am living proof of this - one rejection and I scurry off. Men are more inclined to take that initial rejection as just that, then try again.

You can read a couple of my other posts about women and negotiation here and here

Men, Women, and the Definition of 'Family'

We need to change men’s options and choices.
— Anne-Marie Slaughter

This week saw the release of Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, Unfinished Business. Fresh from reading her husband's article, Why I Put My Wife's Career First, in the Atlantic, I was eager to get a copy. Two nights ago I did - but first I saw Slaughter interviewed about the book by former New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn.

How do we start to change the box we still have family and women’s roles in?
— Christine Quinn

Christine quinn

I'd heard Slaughter speak before, both live and on the radio, so I knew she was good. And I loved having Quinn as the moderator. She asked questions we need to hear more often, such as why our society sees 'family' as the nuclear kind, and why a married, gay woman like Quinn is seen for what she lacks (children) rather than what she has. Quinn told us that during her campaign for mayor she was quizzed about why she didn't 'have a family.' She's from a big Irish-Catholic clan and said what I've often felt like saying: Actually, I do have one (they just haven't emerged from my own body). After the campaign was over some journalist suggested that now maybe she could get started on that family. Talk about being put in a box.

I'm glad she brought up that topic of how she's viewed as a non-mother, not just because it illustrates how easily women are still stereotyped. But also because women who either choose not to have children or can't have them often feel totally left out of the conversation on women and work - yet we too are very much part of the workforce.

Back to Slaughter, who kicked the conversation about straight women and high level careers into the stratosphere three years ago with her Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can't Have It All. Her premise is that we've become a society that wildly undervalues care - whether women or men are giving it.

"We as women have sexism ourselves," Slaughter pointed out. True. Plenty of women are just as sexist about men as men have traditionally been about us. We can be inflexible in how we see their roles, such is the power of the masculine stereotype. The latest Pew Social Trends survey on stay-at-home fathers showed just 8% of Americans thought kids were better off with a dad at home full-time (51% thought kids were better off with a mother at home full-time). The idea that mother is best is in all our heads, and that father is cut out for other things. Someone I know well has occasionally received heated praise - "You're such a good dad!" - for doing pretty basic, everyday stuff with his kid. A woman would never receive a similar comment, Slaughter noted. Women are expected to be nurturers. Men aren't.

She also reminded us that young girls are usually told that they can do anything - work, work and have kids, stay home with kids, whatever. But boys are still raised with the narrative that they must become a provider - their scope is much narrower. Slaughter says she and her husband are bringing up their two sons with the idea that they too can do anything they want - including become the lead parent.

I'm about a quarter of the way into the book and hope to have Slaughter and her husband as guests on The Broad Experience. And I hope Chris Quinn doesn't mind if I call her a real broad. That's a compliment.