The Differences in Gender Communication, with Susan Freeman
Episode 159: The Differences in Gender Communication, with Susan Freeman
Through an unusual career path, Susan Freeman, Founder & CEO of Freeman Means Business, found her passion for business communication - where she focuses on the differences between how women and men communicate in business settings. On this episode, Susan shares how she started off her career, the impact of communication styles on diversity and equity, and how diversity isn’t always comfortable for everyone. She also touches on her work as a continuous “trouble maker", muted-group theory, non-binary people, as well as how men play a key role in achieving diversity.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Maricella, you are shivering today and it's spring. What is happening?
00:25 Maricella Herrera: This is not Spring. This is... This... I do not know what this is, but it's not spring.
00:30 KW: I know that the weather... We, I've actually talked about the weather a lot on the podcast, but it is...
00:34 MH: Yeah, we do. 'Cause I'm always cold.
00:37 KW: It has been inconsistent, I would say. So hopefully, we get into a groove. I'm utterly confused every day when I walk out of the house.
00:49 MH: Yeah. So am I. I try to not think about it that much, 'cause if not I'm gonna get depressed and wanna go home, and I can't go home.
01:00 KW: Well, do not be depressed, because we actually have a great guest today on the Ellevate Podcast...
01:06 MH: As always.
01:07 KW: Uplifting and inspiring Susan Freeman, who has turned adversity into advantage, has really done some amazing work supporting the workplace by creating programs and information and inspiration around effective communication tactics. And I think particularly as we look at what happens when people, from different backgrounds or particularly different gender identities, communicate in houses that can sometimes be a blocker towards how people best work together. And so Susan has really dedicated her life towards effective communication and how we can not just communicate out, but be more aware of those around us and how we can better support them as well.
01:54 MH: That's awesome, honestly, I'm really, really excited for your conversation with Susan. This is something we talk about a lot as part of our Building Inclusive Workplaces program, we consistently want to have these conversations about how we make workplaces more equal and basically just inclusive. And let people come to their work as authentically as possible, and still be as effective and as successful as they can be.
02:25 KW: We've done a series of events. Maricella you've been a big driver of this, they are live in New York City, but also live-streamed. So if you do not subscribe to Ellevate's The Morning Boost newsletter, I highly recommend that you do, you get tons of information around our upcoming local and live events, as well as recaps and research that we've been putting together around many of these important topics when it comes to women in business. And this Leading With Empathy series has been really powerful, because we've been talking to business leaders, we have been talking to allies, to managers, to really look at what are all the touch points around inclusivity in the workplace and particularly the touch points that might be keeping people back. Oftentimes, the research shows that we tend to promote and recognize and reward those that are most similar to us, because we communicate in the same way and we can really see ourselves in them. But that has led us to where we are today, with very non-diverse parts of our business ecosystem. And so we here at Ellevate are focused on changing that, and our Building Inclusive Workplaces program is just the first step of that. So there'll more to come about, our Building Inclusive Workplaces program, which... Maricella, leads me to... Actually, I have an idea.
03:55 MH: Yes? You always do.
03:57 KW: I know. [chuckle] I do. We should have you on the podcast. I think I'm inviting you to be a future guest, so I can interview you about this program. 'Cause it's something that we're both incredibly passionate about but you've been a big driver behind this, and I would love for you to tell us more and to share some of the highlights and learnings.
04:16 MH: Yeah, I'd love to. You know that this is something that's very near and dear to my heart. I've been having lots of fun with the program and building out both of the series that are included within it, which is... One is leading with empathy, and the other is inclusive managers. So I'd love to talk more about it. I love talking about it. Had a lot of fun last week, moderating a panel on inclusive managers, which... You gave me a really good tip by the way.
04:45 KW: Did I? [chuckle]
04:46 MH: Yeah. I ended up doing the whole "What would you do" fire questions to our panelists, and it was pretty interesting responses from it. So it's been great to learn different perspectives. And we're gonna continue to do those for the rest of the year. So we have workshops coming up in New York City, live streams for all of the in-person events, jam sessions, which are our live webinars, if you don't subscribe again, like Kristy said to The Boost.
05:19 KW: Excellent. Well thanks, Maricella, and let's get to my interview with Susan Freeman.
05:37 KW: Susan thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate podcast. It's great to have you here. And also, just a true testament to the power of community and networks, because you and I both have a connection in common, and she linked us, and it's been really wonderful getting to know you. And so, thanks for joining me on the podcast and for just being such a great ally and friend the past couple months.
06:04 Susan Freeman: Well, Kristy, thank you for having me. I have great respect for our mutual friend, and I'm super glad that we all lift each other up and connect one another, all across the country from California to New York and in between.
06:16 KW: [chuckle] Yes, absolutely. Susan, I want to hear a little bit about your background and how you got to this place, because it is a story that I know will be really inspirational to our listeners. You don't have a traditional career path. And I think more and more, we're hearing stories about women who really forged their own path to fulfill their personal missions, and to create the change they wanna create. And we need more stories like this.
06:47 SF: Sure, sure, it was not... Let's just say it was not the up and down elevator. [chuckle]
06:53 SF: It was more of the side-to-side, left to right elevator. So I feel grateful for the path that I've been on. However, like you said, it was not predictable at all. So many, many years ago, I'm afraid to even tell you how many years ago, I worked in financial services in Boston, before the crash. And everything was great and people were making good money, and it was a really robust life. I lived in a beautiful home in Scituate, Massachusetts, and thought I had everything one needs to have to be successful. But what I also had was a son, and my ex-husband had done something that most people that I knew had never experienced. So, he abandoned us when my son was only nine months old, and it was at that point where I was like, "What am I going to do?" I was the money maker, I had a great job, I had a good title, cars, boats, land, house, all the stuff that you think's important. And I really was so... I don't know, just put aside, I didn't... I was shocked. So I packed up my infant and our dog and three paintings that my father had left to me in his will and a rainbow vacuum cleaner, 'cause those things were really expensive. [chuckle]
08:16 SF: You can't even buy them today, but back then it was a big deal. And I drove from Boston, Massachusetts, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I had to start over. And there was no financial services in Baton Rouge Louisiana, and people didn't know what consultative selling was, and they certainly didn't know the multi-asset trade platform that I had been representing at State Street. So I had to start over, I really had to reinvent myself and to combat all the bias against single mothers back in that time. People who didn't know my story would just assume things, and even if their assumptions had been correct, they were not nice assumptions. So, I started over from financial services to legal. I went to legal services and I used my background and education in marketing and journalism and political science to become successful in legal. So I basically started over many, many rungs down the ladder, as you might say, from having been a vice president to then a MarCom manager or marketing manager. And then I would do traditional outbound marketing, and learned so many lessons about cultural communication and differences in region and how to speak to and treat one another. And then as I got my master's in communications, I started incorporating a lot of CALM's theory in everything that I do.
09:44 SF: So that's probably been the common thread throughout my career that's gotten me to where I am today, is the CALM's theory. Currently my goal is to help women in business communicate effectively with the entire world. The world is flat, and we're doing business online, we're doing business via Skype. We need to understand what motivates various people, what's the reasoning behind certain people's thoughts, words, deeds, behaviors. And I am out there helping women to understand that and then also helping men to communicate effectively with women in business. As we know, the gender-based communications that exist, they're very different, very different how men and women communicate. So I start with that, and then I help to create change for women in the workplace. And I connect the dots, if you will, from gender-based communications to gender bias, explaining why we are where we are, explaining not excusing the white male behavior, and the language, and... And when I say communications, I'm talking about more than just oral, I'm talking about body language and written words and just behaviors, day-to-day everyday interactions.
11:02 SF: So, I explain the differences in how men and women communicate, and I connect that to where we are in the... Much of the biases we see today in the workplace. And then I take it one step further and hopefully provide great value to many, I know some I've worked with have said so, in creating inclusive diversity. Not just a D&I program, 'cause as you know, Kristy, we've all read the McKinsey report and Lean In report on the outcomes of all of our D&I efforts. They're not so great. So my goal is to create inclusive diversity, so honoring and valuing the differences. Not just hiring people who look different than we do, but actually... And not just tolerating. Oh, I hate to hear that word. People say we have to tolerate our differences. We shouldn't tolerate our differences, we should embrace our differences. Be curious about the other, if you will. So that's what I do, and I love doing it, and that's what got me to where I am today. Through great trauma and tragedy, you emerge victorious.
12:09 KW: First off, thank you for sharing your story. I know that's very personal, and I appreciate you being so vulnerable and open with us, and thank you for the work that you're doing. I think about communication a lot, and particularly communication when it comes to gender, and communication when it comes to inclusive diversity as well. I think it is all interconnected. The way we communicate is oftentimes tied to how we were raised, to our values, to our culture. Share with us, what are some of those differences with gender communication, and what are some of the stereotypes around that?
12:50 SF: Oh wow, what a powerful question, I'm glad you asked that. I will tell you that you've probably heard of... Here's one example that's pretty common, so I use that to appeal to your listeners, because they probably know a little bit about this, the ritualistic communications in which women engage that maybe men do not, most men do not. The, "I'm sorry" for example.
13:14 SF: We say "I'm sorry" a lot. And I... Look, it depends on the situation and the context. Men say "I'm sorry" strictly to take blame, and... Not very often, but when they do, the "I'm sorry" does mean, "I have done something for which I am regretful and remorseful, and hope to create positive changes and outcome of my apology." But women don't always use the words "I'm sorry" in the same way. The "I'm sorry" can be either a ritual expression of sympathy, or the first step in restoring emotional balance. So women who offer up that ritual apology generally expect one in return. Let's say your friend that you just described that works at Ellevate, she may not understand yet that regardless of her intention of her content and her style of delivery of information, it's the receiver who makes meaning of the message. So whatever her intention was is not as important as how the receiver received her message, and that's all dependent on both content and delivery.
14:17 SF: So let's say she sees that a project went awry and didn't have the outcome as desired, and she offers up an, "I'm sorry the project didn't go the way we had hoped." She's not in fact taking blame for the project's failure, because maybe it's not her fault. But she will still offer up an apology, and expect one in return from the other team member who worked on that project, so that they can start new and have balance, if you will, and maybe share blame or save face. But when a man hears all these apologies flying around, he sees these people as, "Okay, this woman is to blame for the project's failure." Or, "She's saying she did something wrong, which then resulted in this outcome that wasn't the desired outcome." And that's not necessarily the case. But he won't voice those thoughts. He will feel and think this, he will not say this, but then when it comes time for review, he will remember that, that your friend apologized for the project's failure. Thus, he thinks she took blame for the project's failure, when really she was just trying to wipe a clean slate, let's start over, let's get going on this or go in a new direction, And basically, I like to use the phrase "sharing blame" or "saving face"... Establishing balance, and that's one example.
15:47 SF: Another example of how men and women communicate differently. Let's say, Kristy, you're in a meeting and your team is at the conference table, and you've been struggling with this challenge for months and you finally have what you think is a solution. So you bring this solution to the team, and you might say, "Folks, here's what I think is the solution, tell me if I've missed anything, protocols on this, find gaps, what do you see that I haven't seen yet? How do you feel about this? Is this a good idea in your opinions?" So forth and so on. You're very collaborative and transformational in your leadership.
16:30 SF: Whereas a man in the room might witness you and hear you saying these things and he'll think to himself, "She's indecisive. She's seeking validation. She's not a true leader." Thus, she's not the candidate for a raise or a title or a job, perhaps, that you might be well-suited for. But because he doesn't communicate that same way, whereas if he were the leader in that meeting, he would say, "I've come up with the solution, here's what it is. You take pieces A, B, C, and you'll take D, E, F." And everyone... He'll delegate and everyone goes and does their part of the project... Or to put the... Implement the solution. So that's just a different style of leadership, and that's another example of how we communicate differently.
17:22 SF: Even compliments. So for example, we'll hear women say "Oh I love that new suit, that's great." Or, "Oh, those shoes are awesome." Or, "Did you get a haircut, it's beautiful. I love your haircut" or those sorts of things, men don't engage that way. A disadvantage for women might be, for example, another way that we communicate differently non-verbally is how we're judged or marked or labeled on how we dress, even the narrow limits of a professional man's wardrobe. Dark suits, pale shirts. My husband goes... He's a litigator, he's CEO. He goes to work, he wears this... He can wear the same suit four times in the same week and change his tie and shirt and people don't notice. If a woman wore the same thing four times in the same week, she would definitely be frowned upon or someone would think something was wrong. So even her multiple choices in clothing, hairstyle, make-up, these leave her vulnerable to being categorized or labeled, or marked, as we say.
18:27 KW: And calling out the non-verbal communication is so key, because we tend to think more about just what we say, but there's a number of the non-verbal cues, which if it's... Everything from your posture, to rolling your eyes, to sitting up straight at the boardroom table, and everything in between that I think really does have an impact that we may not be conscious of.
19:00 SF: Yes, yes. So a great example of that is, I for example, I have not the best eye sight. I wear glasses, a lot of women my age do. But I have keen sense of hearing, and I'll turn my head to where my ear is toward the speaker, but if I'm not careful and my head dips down a bit, I look like I'm playing small or I'm insecure or my head being tilted down looks like I'm afraid. So I have to be sure to make sure my chin is level and my head is held high, and not too high, 'cause if your chin is above a certain plane, that imaginary plane, then you're seen as a snob. If your nose is too much in the air, a lot of people will view that as off-putting. Things like crossing your legs. You have to cross your legs at the ankles according to Emily Post. But these days, if you're standing and you your cross your legs, it looks like a show of weakness or a sign of smallness. Women... Generally the power pose might be standing hip width apart, your feet hip width apart.
20:09 SF: I had a... A client that was an Episcopal priest, and he was very in the habit, pardon the pun, of speaking with his arms above his shoulders and spread wide because his vestments would hang. But outside of the church, he would go and speak to advocate for the homeless, or the poor, or whatever causes. And so he was often at community and public meetings, you know, municipal meetings and such. And his... He might have been in jeans and a sweatshirt but then... There he goes with the arms in the air, wide up in the air, and I had to tell him, it's like, "You know, that looks weird. Don't do that." [chuckle] "Stop that."
20:56 KW: [chuckle] Does not translate when the robes aren't on.
20:58 SF: Exactly, it's... So that's another example of communication through your wardrobe and your body language. I was like, "It just looks weird. Put your arms down by your hips, by your side." Men have a tendency, and this is a very masculine trait, to widen their arms more than women, and they stand with their feet shoulder width apart. Now take the inverse and imagine, Kristy, you're on stage or you're in a meeting or an interview or whatever, and you stand with your feet shoulder width apart. [chuckle] That, too, is a little off-putting, and the semiotic or sign or symbol or message that you're sending is one that sort of makes people tilt their head and go, "Hmm." Because you're standing at such a wide stance.
21:49 SF: And again, women in power or women in leadership need to be careful about the messaging that they send. So Amy Cuddy's work is great. There's a woman here in San Francisco who's just fantastic. Cara Hale is her name, and she does great work as well, on body language and posturing and... But I'm always careful, too, when I work one-on-one with people. I don't wanna point this out in a group setting, 'cause people... I don't wanna hurt... Embarrass anyone. But in a one-on-one setting, we'll go through all these types of things, all the messaging, your tone of voice, your choice of words, your rate of speech, your body language. So all of these things send a message to the other and you need to be careful about that message, just to make sure that the receiver means... Receives the message you mean for him or her to receive.
22:49 KW: Sure. Sure. And one last question for you on this, and then I have so many other things I wanna talk to you about today, but... The work that you do with companies, which is so important, around inclusive diversity and embracing differences, and you've shared some excellent examples of the ways that... The way that we speak, or the words that we use, the ways that we stand and our posture, all send signals to those on the receiving end. And if that person on the receiving... So there's the aspect of what you talked about today, is just being aware of some of those differences. But there's this aspect of the person on the receiving end evolving to a place or coming to a place where you can also decipher those words and those actions through a more inclusive lens. What are... Do you have some advice or insights on what our listeners can do to be more inclusive when it comes to how they receive communications?
23:57 SF: Oh yes. This is a great question, 'cause it's... I just wanna be clear that it's not always the onus on the sender to change certain behaviors. In cases of bias, for example, we need to change the world. There are times when women aren't doing anything wrong, they shouldn't change what they're doing. We need to instead have leaders and corporations and people who are in positions of power, that can afford a raise to someone or afford a new job title or what have you, we need to encourage them to, first and foremost, be fair and understand what fairness really means. Understand what equity means. Be curious. So I have literally heard this time and again, "Oh, she's great on paper and she interviewed well. I just can't put my finger on it, she just doesn't fit in here."
24:57 SF: I am the trouble maker, the dissenter, the person that pokes the bear to change policy or create change. And I'll say, "Well what does that mean? What do you mean by fit in? What does that look like to you?" And I'll talk about the communication series that play a huge role in, let's just use a man for example... A man's in the position to hire or promote and he says, "She just doesn't fit in here," I challenge this leader to tell me what exactly is it that makes her not fit in? She's perfect on paper, she interviewed well. He might see a male candidate who is... Looks similar on paper, or same behaviors in the interview, but he relates better with the male candidate. And I attribute that, in great part, to what we call muted group theory and the fact that they both speak "white male" for example. But if this... Let's say an African-American female is being interviewed and he just can't put his finger on it. I push hard, and I challenge him to tell me why she doesn't fit in.
26:05 SF: And then I say, "Can't you be curious? Embrace curiosity." That is the way to come to a place of inclusive diversity, is we must find people who are different, embrace their differences, and be curious to learn about their perspectives, their histories, their points of view, the insights they bring to the table. I mean, these types of inclusive diversity atmospheres or systems in which I hope to operate. And I hope that all your younger listeners grow up and when they get into positions of power, I hope they work at places that are inclusive, not just have a D&I initiative, 'cause we know, like I said earlier, that's not working out. But in order to turbo charge any company's operations or productivity or even their financial results. It's not easy to achieve that, but I'll tell you, it's easier if you have an inclusive culture, and your senior people who are... Really, they oversee the fate of others. This man hiring can change the course of this company for its customers, clients, shareholders, and employees if he engages in curiosity.
27:25 KW: You are certainly a change agent, and I am utterly inspired by you, but wanted to also make sure we talk a little bit about the work that you're doing with the Women's Business Connection and Girl Power, because we've gotten some really great insights around communication and particularly within the workplace, but there's a lot to hear too about Pipeline and Girls, and the ways that we can have an impact in many different circles. And so if you wouldn't mind sharing some of the information on that?
28:00 SF: Sure, sure, so thank you for asking. My entire life, I've been an advocate for equity in the workplace. I was just long ago, too young to understand what that really meant. But I was always a trouble maker, not a rule breaker, but a trouble maker, a dissenter. I asked why a lot. So way back when years ago, and I mean many years ago, I worked at a large Chamber of Commerce in Massachusetts. I was their community development director and this was a serious chamber, they had 3600 members at the time. And I started a group called Women's Business Connection. Now to be honest with you, Kristy, I'm not sure where they've taken that since, but back then it was a big deal because women really didn't have a voice, that they should. And this was a very progressive move within a business chamber in Massachusetts back then. I, along with a few female board members, actually put, not just sessions one-on-one within the chamber, but we really put on a splash, a big show. Talk about trouble makers. Let your voice be heard. So we give content, advice, guidance to support women all over the world.
29:19 SF: It's a place that's safe. So a lot of, especially young women, I would say the demographic is younger women who are trying to find their way and maybe about to embark on their own into the world and need advice. So we try to create a wave of understanding and acceptance of equality for women and men, girls and boys, while honoring, like I said, honoring their differences. We share pictures, advice, stories, quotes, studies, but the real power piece is the private messaging. I think that what people see publicly might not look more than just sharing content, but it's the private messaging that's so powerful. I remember a young lady in the Middle East wrote to me and said, "Because of you, I did XYZ." And I told her to be very careful 'cause doing XYZ over there can get you killed. But to her it was such a motivating site, that it gave her the courage to do something that she felt was every woman's right to do, but her particular part of the country, like I said earlier, I have to be very careful when I'm doing these communication talks and trainings to be aware of cultural differences or even regional communication differences.
30:38 SF: When I lived in New Orleans, I could call the president of the company Mr. So-and-so, and not be judged negatively. But if I moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and I called the president of the company, Mr. So-and-so, instead of by his first name, I would forever be relegated to Julie the cruise director on the love boat. Yeah.
31:00 KW: [chuckle] Well, that just, that mental image.
31:06 SF: I actually was told that, that's a direct quote from a CEO at... This person is on the Forbes, he's like 190 on the Forbes 200, and he literally told me that, "If you call me Mr. So-and-so one more time, you're gonna forever be the go-get-me-a-cup-of-coffee girl." This is back in the '90s, but... And I think today companies can't engage in the kind of reinvention they did of me for fear of being sued. And this particular company is very well ahead in creating equity in the workplace, and they do a lot for women at work. But back in the '90s, it was a little different.
31:43 KW: Yeah. But I mean it's so much that inspiration, it's the advice, that mentorship, and the support. And I think we under-sell... You know, we talk about lives and careers and just aspiration and everything in between. It's these individual moments that we have with others, where they give us that advice or they share insights on running for office, or tools or encouragement, or whatever it is, that have such a transformational effect. And here at Ellevate, where we think so much about community and the power of community and diversity within community, it's something that's always top of mind with me, which is that there's a whole world build-up of these micro-mentoring moments that yield possibilities and opportunities that we ourselves didn't know existed, or remove barriers or give that advice. And so, Susan, so much of what you're doing is a huge driver of that, and driver of just making the world we wanna see and creating that change, and I thank you for that. I want to hear what excites you most about what you do.
33:03 SF: [chuckle] I knew you were gonna ask me that. [chuckle] So I have to say, I think people assume that I work only with women, but I don't, and... I work with women and men, and I work with those who don't identify as either, and I help to change the language in firms and corporations in their written materials, spoken words, on how to appeal to those who don't identify as either male or female. I know that... In California, you know, that's a big deal. And when I travel to the East Coast, it's a big deal. When I go to the Gulf South, it's not quite yet as big a deal. But my favorite thing, what excites me most are these Aha moments when I speak on disrupting gender stereotypes in your everyday communications, and they're usually by men. So when the men in the room learn more about muted group theory, which I refer to a lot in my talks, they sort of breathe a sigh, not of relief, because now that they're aware their feet are to the fire and they have to create change, but at least they feel it opens a conversation. They then ask, "How can I change my behavior to better support women in the workplace?"
34:15 SF: And that's the most exciting moment of all. Of course women are on board with this, but when we can convert men to allies in our cause of creating equity and they actually ask, "More than just taglines and lip service, what can I do? How can I change policy? How can I change my own personal behavior? How can I change my mind?" That is when I get most excited, because as we know, unfortunately, right now, it is still the white male in power. So until it's not that, it's important that we convert those people to a better understanding of what it means to be a female leader and what it means to have equity in your workplace.
35:03 KW: Absolutely. Susan, thank you for that, and thank you so much for joining us here on the Ellevate Podcast. It was so great to catch up with you and to be inspired by the work that you're doing.
35:15 SF: Thank you. Thank you for having me, keep your... Keep doing your great work, I'm gonna keep following you like a shadow. And yeah, you do inspire and motivate me, and I'm gonna keep making trouble.
35:29 KW: Please do, please do. Excellent Susan, thanks, this was great. You... I love, just love what you're doing and I'm just really excited to support it however I can.
35:42 SF: Well, thank you. I'll be calling or emailing, you can betcha. [chuckle]
35:46 KW: Sounds perfect.
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