Publication Details

M. Barrett (2003). Engendering healthy organisational communication - evidence from Australian female managers and business people. Gender, Work and Organization Conference, Keele University, UK, 25 June 2003.


Keeping 'good' communication in organisations is one of the most frequently prescribed recipes for organisational well being. Training programs for employees in assertiveness, improved communication, career development, and managing oneself and others, have often called attention to the specifics of verbal interactions between managers, employees and others in the organisation. Such training programs generally suppose that direct, open approaches to communication are best. Yet it has often been asserted in sociolinguistic research that men and women communicate differently, including at work. Despite this, precepts for 'good' communication that are recommended for both genders in communication training are usually consistent with male rather than female communication patterns.

The paper begins with a discussion of the value of using scenario-based research, given some problems resulting from previous linguistic research techniques, especially the 'form-function' problem arising from an increasingly sophisticated view of gender differences in spoken communication. The paper then presents the results of a survey of 157 Australian managers and businesswomen of whom the majority were at middle or higher rungs of the corporate ladder in their organisations. For each of three scenarios illustrating common workplace communication dilemmas, participants were asked to rate a series of strategic responses to a communication problem or dilemma, rating responses both for their effectiveness and their probability. Despite their organisational seniority and their view of themselves as confident and assertive communicators, the women's views of how effective and how probable the responses to the dilemmas still varied in some cases with their belief about the gender of the 'communication strategist' in the scenario. The participants' choice of their own preferred strategy did not vary with their level on the organisational ladder and their level of confidence, although there were few extremely junior participants in organisational terms and few who described themselves as lacking confidence in expressing their opinions at work.

The paper discusses both theoretical and practical implications of these results, some limitations of the study, and suggests topics for further research.