Job hunting? Watch what you say!

Leigh Knotts

May 17, 1991|By Leigh Knotts

ALL OVER the country the Class of '91 is graduating, and soon many of us will be looking for jobs, confident our hard-earned degree will impress job interviewers. But there's at least one more thing my fellow graduates need to know before they head off to the first interview:

They should be careful of what they say and how they say it. It will make a difference, especially for women. And I can prove it.

During my senior year at Hood College, I researched speech patterns and how they affect a job search. What I found out is scary for women hoping to land that big job.

Women realize they aren't starting on equal ground with men in the work place. We've seen the research on pay equity and on women in top management. But few of us know that we have to watch how we say things even more than what we say when we go for an interview.

Numerous researchers have shown that women, more often than men, use certain phrases or clauses in their speech. We'll call it "women's language." I wanted to see if personnel managers reacted differently to job candidates using "women's language" than to those who did not.

I picked four features of women's language to use in my research -- tag questions, hedges, hesitation and intensifiers.

A "tag question" is a statement followed by a questioning phrase. For example (all examples are taken from a script I used in my research), "A reliable person is important in the work place, isn't she?" "Isn't she" is a tag question. It isn't needed and allows the speaker to avoid forcing an opinion on the listener.

A "hedge" is a phrase that blunts a statement or makes the statement more tentative. "I guess one adjective to describe me is reliable." "I guess" is a hedge. Other hedges include "sort of" and "kind of." Hedges help the speaker soften the impact of a statement that might provoke negative reactions.

A "hesitation" denotes tentativeness on the part of the speaker. "In the past, I have worked independently on several projects and, um, have completed them on time." Words like "um," "uh" and "well" are hesitations. A hesitation allows the speaker to avoid appearing dominant or assertive in the conversation.

An "intensifier" is an intonational emphasis, the equivalent of underlining the written language. "I come to work on time and I really do not take days off unnecessarily." "Really," "so" and "such" are intensifiers.

To gauge the effects of women's language in an interview, I recorded my honors adviser, a psychology professor, using and then not using women's language while reading a script presenting her qualifications as a job candidate. The tapes were reviewed by 27 personnel officers, all women. Half heard one version of the tape, the others heard the alternative version.

The personnel officers judged the "applicant" on potential success, acceptance and likability. The woman who spoke without using women's language was rated significantly higher all around, including more likely to be hired for a management position in a large corporation, more likely to be effective in handling the job and more likely to be promoted. She also was rated as having more power and as more likely to receive support from superiors. There were several other categories, but the bottom line was the same -- women's language is not the language that business people want applicants to speak. Even women don't want to hear it. They want a woman to talk like a man.

My test results are consistent with past research showing that people using women's language are judged as lacking knowledge, authority and power, and as unassertive. The research also shows that women using women's language are seen as not having what it takes to be good managers -- traits such as aggression, directness, knowledge and leadership ability.

The frightening implication of my study is that previous research has understated the effect of the use of women's language on the evaluation of an individual, in particular, job applicants. Much of the previous research was based on the critiques of college students looking at job applicants. I went straight to personnel officers, people responsible for hiring.

Further, it is shocking to discover that men are not the only ones who limit the access of females to power based on their aversion to women's language. This might be because the business world is a man's world, and these personnel officers have adopted the standards of men in order to be accepted themselves.

What should we do? What can we do? Do we give up a language that is unique to women? Women's language does serve a purpose, according to sociologists. All of the features are effective in creating a sense of community and stimulating cooperation. That's the way women tend to operate. Men use language for power and to dominate. That's the way men tend to operate.

We can give up women's language and talk like men so we can "fit in" with the power structure. Or we can continue to use women's language and take the chance that the personnel officer looks beyond how we say it to see who is saying it.

My advice is to be practical. In the ideal business world women could be themselves without fear of rejection. But first, personnel officers and others have to be educated as to the usefulness of women's language. Women need to watch how they speak in an interview. But once they land that job, they should try their best to educate personnel officers and managers about bias.

Leigh Knotts, a senior at Hood College who lives in Oakland, Md., adapted this from her honors thesis. She graduates tomorrow.

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