How Feminine Style Rhetoric Can Go Wrong

How Feminine Style Rhetoric Can Go Wrong | Jennifer Spoelma

Today’s topic is a continuation from last weeks post: What Is Feminine Style Rhetoric and Why Is It Important? If you’re not familiar with the term ‘feminine style rhetoric’, I suggest you go check that our before reading this article. Feminine style rhetoric has excellent advantages for bringing a group together around a central goal. It’s an effective style of communicating because it draws upon commonalities and unifies people based on shared understanding.

So, if those are the strengths of feminine style rhetoric, what happens when the opposite occurs?

First things first. Remember, feminine style rhetoric is just that, it’s a style. Which means that it should be used with thought, intention and awareness of the situation. It’s not always the best option, and when used in the wrong context it can divide and isolate an audience.

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That’s what this article is about: how feminine style rhetoric can go wrong, and what you can do to make sure you use it well.

To help frame this topic, I’m going to use examples from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, published in 2013.

I personally read this book in 2014, shortly after it was published. At that time, the message of the book spoke to me and inspired me. I was in an interesting phase of life: newly married, a fresh college graduate, I had just moved across the country and started my first full time job. I was, admittedly, a bit overwhelmed and confused. I didn’t know what I wanted in life (I still don’t), and I had a very hard time envisioning myself with a long, fulfilling professional career.

I didn’t have many female friends or family that had pursued professional careers, so it was difficult to see myself doing the same. That’s why I think Sheryl’s book was so helpful and encouraging to me at the time. I was in the right place to receive the message she was sharing.

However, since that time, I have also become aware that Sheryl’s book (which was widely read and popular) has received a lot of criticism from women and feminist groups. Roxane Gay discussed her frustrations in Bad Feminist, and several others have done the same.

I stumbled upon an essay written by two English professors at the University of Detroit Mercy, Heather Hill-Vasquez, and Laurie Ann Britt-Smith. They took many of the criticisms Lean In has received, and explained them through the lens of feminine style rhetoric.

It was really intriguing to discover that how Sheryl communicated her ideas, the rhetoric that she used, was a bigger issue than the ideas behind her message.

Below I’m highlighting four of the main ways Sheryl used feminine style rhetoric and how it obscured her message.

  1. Using inclusive language when you don’t understand your audienceAs I mentioned in last week’s post, a major component of feminine style rhetoric is using inclusive language. The goal is to make the speaker/writer equal with the audience to create a stronger group bond. However, this tactic can go wrong when it seems as though the speaker is presuming to understand the audiences unique needs, when in fact they don’t.That’s what happened to Sheryl. She used a writing voice throughout Lean In that made it sound like she was just ‘one of the girls’. She offered advice and encouragement with the perspective that, ‘I did it, I rose to the top. So you can too!’. The issue with this is that throughout the book, Sheryl seemed to be writing to ‘all women in America’. That left a disconnect between what Sheryl was able to accomplish, and what the majority of American women have access to.Discussions of privilege, wealth, education, opportunity, race and sexual orientation were absent from her advice of how to reach the top. This is a big oversight. Without acknowledging that Sheryl had a lot in her favor to be able to achieve what she did, her message came off as slightly ignorant to the barriers many women face in their professional journeys.How to avoid this mistake: It’s always best to acknowledge your gaps of understanding. Of course there is no way Sheryl, or anyone else, can fully understand the intricate ins and outs of other people’s lives. It would be impossible to speak or write anything that speaks to everyone’s unique situation.The good news is, you don’t have to! Your personal story and the insight you have to offer is valuable. You should share it. Just be aware that when you are trying to appeal to others and connect with them, that the language you use doesn’t assume that they share the same feelings or experiences.
  2. Mistaking tokenism for equalityThis point addresses how Sheryl seemed to explain her solution to female inequality in the workplace. Sheryl called Lean In a feminist manifesto. Yet, many think that the main message of her book was ‘more women need to hold more leadership positions in the workforce so that we can have equality’, which is not an accurate description of feminist ideals.What that is is tokenism. The idea that equality happens when equal representation is met is flawed. Equal numbers of women as men in an organization does not mean that the actual culture has shifted, it just means there is an equal number.The goals of the feminist movement are so much bigger than that.“‘Feminism’ is always most concerned with offering alternate models of communication and living in the world that do not oppress or exploit individuals, regardless of gender. Allowing individuals to make choices based on their experience while, most importantly, validating and affirming those choices, feminism ‘establishes and legitimates a value system that privileges mutuality, respect, caring, power-with, interconnections, and immanent value” (Hill-Vaquez, Britt-Smith)How to avoid this mistake: I recommend taking time to read and learn more about the feminist movement (or whatever social/political/religious/etc. topic you’re most interested in discussing). It’s huge, and multi-faceted. You might not agree with every element of feminism and what it stands for, and that’s okay. The more you learn, the better you’ll be able to navigate discussions and news on women’s issues.It will also help you from falling into ‘faux feminist’ beliefs, which is similar to what happened in Lean In. You can still voice that aspects of feminism that are most important to you, without painting a false picture that it is the totality of the feminist movement.
  3. Calling on a group’s shared interest, meanwhile silencing individual voicesFeminine style rhetoric can be very effective when the speaker/writer calls on the group’s shared motivators as a reason to take a certain action. For example, in the airport you will probably hear an announcement say something like, “For everyone’s safety, please report and suspicious activity to the nearest TSA representative.” That’s feminine style rhetoric calling on the group’s shared interest and goodness to do the right thing for the benefit of the entire group.Sheryl used this in her book in a way that drew a lot of criticism. She discussed how women are often portrayed as ‘catty’ in the media, and how this is negative for women, and we should work to change this. That was the shared interest (which I agree with, too). However, from that point, she called on women to stop critiquing other women, as that leads to these portrayals we see in the media.Now, there is a sensitive difference here. Because, of course women should support each other and not tear each other down. But what was implied by Sheryl’s appeal is that it is better to agree with and support other women than to stand up with your own beliefs.This is a trend way bigger than Lean In. If you’ve been on Instagram lately, I’m sure you’ve seen instances of this. While good intentioned, calling on group ideals to ‘stick together,’ or ‘choose community over competition’ can be ways of deflecting any differing viewpoints. I’m not saying that speaking to group ideals is wrong at all. What I’m saying is that it can often be used as a way to suppress individual voices, even if that’s not the intent.How to avoid this mistake: Maintain a healthy mindset that you can hold your own beliefs and ideals, and others (even if you are leading them in some capacity) may not see the world the same way you do. That means, you can still share your beliefs, motivators and reasons for taking certain actions, and invite others to join you, without assuming or requesting they are motivated for the same reasons you are.You can appeal to a group’s shared vision, and suggest ways for them to take action without putting a box or limitations on how they express the action the choose.
  4. Using gendered stereotypes to motivateGendered stereotypes can include things for women such as, ‘women have more insecurity and self-doubt about their ability to lead than men,’ or, ‘women are more people-oriented than task-oriented’.Sometimes, feminine style rhetoric can appeal to these gendered stereotypes as an explanation for certain issues. This isn’t good because a stereotype is a stereotype. It’s often not what is actually going on.For example, the stereotype that women have a lot more insecurity and doubt to work through, is often used in contexts where a woman is hesitating to make a decision. She might receive the advice and council that it’s just her self-doubt getting in the way. When in reality, she’s trying to be thoughtful and consider all aspects of the decision. Thoughtfulness and wise-decision making are things most would agree are positive. But when they’re missed for being self-doubt, then we have a problem.How to avoid this mistake: To avoid the traps of stereotyping, focus on individual’s stories. Share your individual stories and explain what factors were at play for you. Your experiences will resonate with others, whether or not they have shared a similar experience, because they will understand your viewpoint.If you’re sharing the story of someone else, do so as their unique story. Avoid taking an individual's story and using it to represent a full group which leads to stereotypes. Instead, discuss the relationships, characteristics and circumstances that led to the individual’s decision or outcome.

Have you recognized feminine style rhetoric being used poorly before? How has recognizing these trends helped you improve your own communication?