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Does Hillary Play Like A Girl?

Since the Democratic debate on October 30, there has been a veritable media hissy-fit over Hillary Clinton’s purported stumbles as well as her resorting to the gender card when her campaign labeled the attacks by her competitors and the moderators – all men – as “the politics of piling on.”

Pundits male and female, on the left and right cannot seem to stop criticizing and complaining that Hillary is taking it all too personally, that if she wants to fight in that ring, she’s got to be able to take a few on the chin and she shouldn’t whine that the boys are attacking her unfairly.

Welcome to the girls’ club, Hill.

As any woman who has spent time in conference or board rooms populated by men knows, women are attacked more frequently and over less significant issues than the men in the room are. That’s if they’re not ignored entirely or having their ideas co-opted by a more aggressive male colleague or boss. (By the way, men don’t necessarily intend to sabotage women in business nor may they even see such behavior as a barrier to women’s success, if they are conscious of it at all. Of course, this being presidential politics, one can never be certain about such things.)

This all goes to gender differences in communication: Men are socialized to jockey for status, to speak up even when there is little of importance to say –- just to be heard, to stake their claim, to be identified as a player. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to be collaborative, to play nice, to keep things level with everyone on the same plane and to speak up only when there is something really important to say. The result is they speak up less and thus the percentage of times their ideas are shot down is greater. They are also less likely to argue, to fight for what they believe and to stand up for themselves. This is all well and good in social situations around other women, but it doesn’t work at work.

So was Hillary guilty of any of that stereotypical female communication behavior during the debate? I don’t think so. The punditocracy is wrong. She gave a strong performance. She took a lot of punches and remained upright. She didn’t get ruffled and her tone remained measured and even. She had a couple of material stumbles, yes, but not serious enough to warrant the relentless criticism that has resulted. We must be having some slow news days.

Were the men “piling on?” You bet they were. We can argue about whether it was because she is the frontrunner or because she’s a woman. (My opinion? Both.) Her opponents and the moderators, especially Tim Russert, roundly attacked her constantly and without mercy in a way that no male candidate was and usually isn’t.

But she shouldn’t have complained about it and that’s where Clinton and her campaign went wrong. That tactic never has worked very well and women are tired of the victim label, anyway. That’s playing like a girl. Instead, women have quietly, subtly been adapting the rules of the communications game to fit within their stylistic parameters. And what does that look like? I’ll tell you this much, it doesn’t look like the way men do it.

Professional women –- and I suspect even non-professional women –- felt something very unpleasantly familiar while watching this debate unfold. They said to themselves, “Here we go again. Well, guess what, guys, I’m voting for her and aren’t you going to be stunned when she wins. You never saw it coming. We may not complain about this type of treatment, but boy, when I’m alone in that voting booth, the joke’s on you.”

Not playing like a girl. Playing like a woman.

What’s your experience with gender differences in workplace communication?

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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