A Feminist Project
We calculate the charges. We establish the conditions under which we’re going to approve it. Send that on. The girls type that up.
Engineer, public utilities workplace meeting, 2005
In a matter-of-fact way, the engineer in this quote encapsulates the gendered division of labor in the professional workplaces I visited for this project. In North America, as in most of the world, women continue to be underrepresented at the higher ranks of traditionally male professions while they are simultaneously overrepresented in support staff positions in the same workplaces. They are likely to be the “girls” that “type.” Given this asymmetrical representation, even when women and men work side by side, women experience different work climates than do men. Gender bias is evidenced in the demographics, economics, and hierarchical positions of women in professional places of work, and differences in the status of women and men are also revealed in research on evaluative responses of both men and women toward women (Valian, 1998; Ridgeway & Correll, 2004). Popular self-help books and workshops urging women to improve their styles notwithstanding, the biases against women’s advancement are far more fundamental than changes in dress and talk can possibly remedy. In a contribution to a 1999 panel discussion on language and gender in the workplace, linguist Sally McConnell-Ginet emphasized the importance of attending to evaluative bias. She insisted that
the major issue is not differences in women’s and men’s competency- including their communicative competency. The big problem is people’s attitudes towards women and men, their sharply differentiated expectations that lead, as psychologist Virginia Valian puts it, to persisting under-evaluation of women’s work and over-evaluation of men’s.
The current study rejects the idea that women need to be fixed, as is regularly expressed in popular media and sometimes unwittingly supported by research centered on gender difference. Instead, it concentrates on what women are already doing as valuable participants in workplaces where their presence at higher ranks is relatively new. By documenting women’s discursive agency, the findings presented here counter negative attitudes and evaluations of women in settings and positions traditionally associated with men. Using conversation analytic methods, I analyze ways women claim and use turns at talk in a collection of workplace meetings, with attention to both vocal and non-vocal practices.
This is applied research in that it takes up the expressed needs of practitioners rather than the priorities of an area of scholarship, even though conversation analysis, sociolinguistics, functional linguistics, and gender and language studies are fields from which I draw and to which the research findings contribute. This is also a feminist study in that I initiated it in response to women’s concerns about speaking up in workplace meetings, and in that my analyses center on the talk of women in the data. As I describe below, I started out with an interest in finding cases of what women experience as “having our ideas ignored,” but, after visiting and videotaping the first few workplace meetings for the study, I shifted my attention to documenting women’s evident competency in meeting interaction.1
As the method I rely upon is conversation analysis (CA), another goal of this study is to contribute to new findings to the corpus of CA-based accounts of meeting interaction (Cuff & Sharrock, 1987; Boden, 1994; Koole & ten Thije, 1994; Bilmes, 1995; Kangasharju, 1996; Wasson, 2000; Huisman, 2001; Barske, 2006; Mazeland & Berenst, in press; Femø Nielson, in press, in prep a, b, c, d). Though my CA lens is focused directly on the talk of women, the practices documented here are functional for and available to persons regardless of sex; these skills are not sex-specific. Thus, the analytic chapters of this book present new CA-based findings on turn-taking in meetings more generally, with meetings understood as scheduled, multiparty, task-oriented institutional interactions.
This introductory chapter outlines the origins of the research and my reasons for moving from a question which focused on women as victims to one regarding women as agents. It then positions the study with reference to trends in feminist language study. The two final sections consider the study as a form of applied linguistics and as an adaptation of CA.
Framing and reframing the research question: from passive to active
The research for this book was prompted by an accumulation of concerns shared with me over the years by women who were my university colleagues and my friends in communities beyond, culminating in an invitation by two women in science for me to join them in a grant aimed at the advancement of women in science and engineering. A prime complaint of women in these fields was that their ideas were ignored, and these colleagues looked to an expert on language in social interaction to help them understand the reported phenomenon. Like other women in the professions, they spoke from direct experience, but they were also well versed on the dismal statistics on women’s advancement in the professions and the results of social-psychological experiments on the operation of gender bias.
One of the first books they recommended to me was Virginia Valian’s, Why so slow? (1998). Valian synthesizes studies and statistics related to women’s slow advancement and, in particular, the lower evaluation of women versus men. Study after study has found that, when other variables are controlled (education, expertise, etc.), women are responded to more negatively than men as measured by facial expression, gaze behavior, individual evaluations, and decision reached in task-based groups. As Valian summarizes the research, women “are attended to less, even when they say the same things in the same way as men do” (1998:131).2 She notes that such findings coincide “with the experience of professional women, who frequently get the impression that they receive less attention than men and that their suggestions are more likely to be ignored than the same suggestions coming from men” (131). Given the consistency of broad statistical studies and of experimental findings, there was reason for me and my concerned colleagues to predict that the analysis of videotaped meetings in professional workplaces would yield insights into the interactional patterns that underlie women’s experience of having their ideas ignored.
Thus, at the very initial stage of this project, my guiding question was: How is the much-reported experience of women having their ideas ignored manifested through interactional practices in workplace meetings? I italicize “women having their ideas ignored” because the proposition it entails (‘women’s ideas are ignored’) became a problem for me as I visited, videotaped, and began to view and analyze meeting interaction. What I was most struck by was the clear evidence of women’s competence.
Holding loosely to what originally prompts analytic inquiry is part of a CA approach; indeed, one ideal way into analysis is to engage in what Harvey Sacks called “unmotivated” inquiry (Sacks, 1984:27). Even if we begin with particular questions, in the iterative process of analysis, CA asks us to continually work at setting aside our dearest social understandings and motivations, to the degree that we are able. By striving to do this, we increase our chances of noticing new interactional practices, ones which might be different from what we originally predicted would be important. Elsewhere Sacks (1992 [1966 lecture]) notes in passing that it is easy to “simply fall into the most characteristic error of social science, which is only to interpret the answers to questions and not the questions” (1992:255). Even as I set out with my question of how women’s ideas are ignored, I remained open to where the data would lead me. I was prepared for other phenomena to emerge related to women’s concern with having ideas taken up. I treated my interest in “women’s ideas” and how they are “ignored” as a provisional starting point, one that I would reevaluate as I acquired and analyzed data.
As I started observing, recording, and analyzing meetings, I was impressed with women’s evident skill at getting and using turns, and I began to doubt the wisdom and usefulness of searching for instances of women’s ideas being ignored. Certainly, arriving at accounts of interactional practices involved in such cases could validate women’s experiences, but the undervaluing of women’s work and the pervasiveness of women’s victimization across cultures and classes is already well attested. How would further detailing of such patterns benefit women? Beyond providing a different kind of empirical validation for women’s reported experience, perhaps detailed accounts of how women’s contributions are ignored could be incorporated into educational programs aimed at changing workplace climate. Perhaps such findings could be used as supporting evidence when approaching institutional leadership to convince them that inequitable processes are operating in the quotidian but consequential moments of our daily work lives.
A challenge for feminist research on language is that it can become a circular and self-fulfilling process whereby taken-for-granted schemas are embedded in our research questions, leading to findings that reinforce the original schemas themselves. Clearly, the CA method is not immune to the biases of the analysts’ taken-for-granted ways of seeing, interpreting, categorizing, coding, highlighting and ultimately sharing findings (Goodwin, 1994), especially in studies like mine which begin with applied interests and priorities.
In reflecting on the question, “How are women’s ideas ignored?,” I began to realize that letting it guide the project would likely reinforce rather than challenge stereotypes about gender and interaction. First, the question highlights gender as the salient variable, apart from rank, age, race, sexual orientation, or ability/disability, for example. Second, the question treats ideas rather than individuals as points of reference. Both these problems do not align well with my motivations for this research. My interest is neither in exploring sex differences nor in dissecting and defining what constitutes an idea. Rather, my interest is in contributing to our understanding of women’s pathways to participation.
But the most problematic aspect of the initial research question was how it positioned women. Although the underlying proposition, “women’s ideas are ignored,” grants women ownership of ideas (“women’s ideas” as the subject noun phrase), it formulates their ideas as objects acted upon in a negative and disempowering manner. Following my original guiding question would serve to reinscribe the stereotype of female passivity and powerlessness, directing my attention to women as passive recipients rather than as agents. It is true that the women in the data I collected inhabited male-dominated work worlds and held institutional ranks in which women are underrepresented; they work in settings where men occupy the highest ranks and women are most frequently employed to do clerical work. Yet the women I was videotaping were clearly actors in the meetings. They exercised agency and power.
After reflecting on these issues in relation to the initial data I collected, and after consulting further with my research partners, I decided against formulating women as victims, which is what I would be doing by searching for instances from which I could elaborate and detail patterns of their ill-treatment. I changed my question to one that would guide analytic attention toward ways women actively participate in workplace meetings. Thus, rather than use the meeting corpus as a source for cases of women’s ideas being ignored, I used it to explore the question:
How do women get and use turns in workplace meetings in settings where women have been traditionally, and are currently, underrepresented?
This question guided me in documenting ways that successful women claim and frame turns in workplace meetings. Though the question does not address women’s experience of having their ideas ignored, it does respond to concerns for speaking up and being heard. This shift in attention allowed me to use CA methods to support reflection on practices women already command.
As noted above, the practices documented in this book serve not only as evidence of women’s skills at speaking up in meetings, but they also represent turn-taking and turn-building practices available to and used by meeting participants regardless of sex. In that respect, these research findings should be understood as representing resources for gaining and using turns that are generically useful rather than sex-specific.3 Nevertheless, because I concentrate on women’s turns in the data, my findings are related to and form a contribution to feminist studies of discourse.