Kingsley Napley was delighted to sponsor a networking dinner for Inspiring Women in Medicine recently. We were kindly given a short slot to share some thoughts with the audience and Kate Rohde, a partner in our Clinical Negligence team chose to reflect upon how women can ensure that their voices are heard in a professional environmental.

I am proud to be a partner in a firm that has long had an enlightened attitude, not only to women in the workplace (our current senior partner and managing partner are both female), but also to part-time workers (both male and female), and all for good commercial reasons to do with retaining talented staff and meeting the needs of clients.

Earlier in my career, I was used to being very confident in the context of the department that I ran and when representing my profession more widely. However, at times I still noticed the additional challenge faced by women trying to get their views across in professions such as law or medicine, in which the senior tiers have historically been male dominated. This gave me pause for thought.

Then, by chance, I stumbled across an article reporting research undertaken in jury trials in the US where it was established that the highest awards of damages in personal injury claims were made by female advocates using “a male voice”. This snared my interest and I read on to find out what this involved. The research suggested that there were “male” and “female” voice patterns:

“Lakoff (1975), a linguist pointed out the following characteristics which, she maintains, distinguished female speech from the male speech:

  1. a high frequency of hedges, such as “I think”, “It seems like,” “If I’m not mistaken,” “Perhaps,” “Kinda;
  2. rising intonation in declarative statements; for example, if asked about the speed at which a car was travelling, the speaker would answer, “Twenty, twenty-five?” uttered with rising intonation as if the speaker were seeking approval for the answer;
  3. repetition indicating insecurity;
  4. intensifiers, such as “very close friends” instead of “close friends” or just “friends”;
  5. a high degree of direct quotation indicating deference to authority;
  6. empty adjectives, such as “divine,” “charming,” “cute.”’

I decided to use this to my advantage and, in certain circumstances, I began to make a conscious decision to adopt fewer of the “female” voice elements identified in the research. The results of this subtle change were surprisingly positive and my opinions seemed to be more easily received.

I am not advocating that women need to take on male characteristics to succeed in a professional environment but it is important to know your audience and I have found that adapting my communication style to suit the circumstances has been a useful tool.

The thing about being heard is that it also gives you confidence and so becomes a virtuous circle.

The other side of this is also true. Every member of a team will have his or her own communication style (impacted upon not only by gender but a host of factors). It is important to ensure that weight is given to the views being expressed, rather than the style in which they are communicated. Resilient professional organisations thrive on diversity and a range of skill sets. For this to work though, part of every manager’s role is to recognise good ideas when they are presented.

Leadership is about listening and being heard. Today there are many inspiring female leaders, in medicine and throughout the professions; however, we should not be complacent. My message is: know your audience and make a noise!