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June 8, 2020 at 3:57 pm #2584
CHRISTINA LUHN & DIANNA PADILLA: Reply to Question From Two Women
In a previous session, this question was posed in the chat log:
Marlis Douglas and Ilsa Kuffner:
Any advice on how women should pitch the “BUT” controversy – they generally are perceived much more negatively using the same approaches as male counterparts in politics or science (e.g., self-deprecating interpreted as ‘humble’ in men versus ‘incompetent’ in women)
I decided to defer to our experts for their answers. Here is Christina Luhn (who joined us for the session on the ABT in Politics). To view Dianna Padilla (who joined us for the session on the ABT in Science) click here.
CHRISTINA LUHN (Professor of International Studies)
CHRISTINA: A worthwhile question. It is always a challenge for women to be relevant, to have a voice that is heard, in any profession dominated by men. Of course there are differences between science and politics but I honestly believe that in the end, women face much the same challenges around what it takes to be credible. I understand that fear. Yes, men get away with things we never could. We get judged on things (clothes, hair, etc.,) that men rarely do.
I believe women can use humor effectively if they are clear with themselves on the purpose. Let me explain. The issue of “self-deprecating” humor being used against women as “incompetent” I think is confusing what this means. Self-deprecating humor is not about humility. Self-deprecation in this context is not the same thing as not taking credit for something or acting as if your ideas, research, thesis, accomplishment was not a big deal. Humor in the context I mean is about achieving a tone – in this capacity, it is a tool used to connect with a group on a deeper, emotional level (so they will put down their smart-phones and listen to your presentation); it is a tool to diffuse a negative situation, to disarm an argument or aggressor in a way that does not alienate the very group o people you want to “hear” you.
I understand why this fear persists for women in any profession – it was not so very long ago that women had to be the most prepared every time they showed up to a classroom or a board room. RBGs generation of women tended to be the top in their classes. And given men still dominate most professions women still work hard to maintain credibility.
Ronald Reagan used humor as a tool not to demean himself or someone else, but to turn the tables on all of those who kept trying to make his age an issue. Think about how different it would have been if he responded with anger or frustration, or pulled out a list of facts to show how age wasn’t a factor for x, he would have either been perceived as defensive or bored everyone. Either way, he would have lost his emotional connection. Instead, he diffused the situation and connected with many on a more emotional level so they would listen to what was important to him.
Now let’s play counterfactual history, the what if. Imagine if Hillary had used her nerdiness and her infamous briefing book as tools with humor. She would have controlled the messaging about herself and her penchant for policy briefs with humor. Not AS a joke but that she is aware of this aspect of her persona. With a knowing wink. The humor is not that the briefing books are bad, rather, that she knows she is kind of a nerd but wow here is why this is good for the country…you want a president who knows about X. She would have humanized herself. Yes, women have to be careful about not being perceived as angry or overly emotional. But the best way to connect with people is through emotions. Remember this is about communicating complex information to people you want to influence who live and work outside your tent. Women aren’t the only ones who suffer this. Think about how badly Gore fared in his run for the presidency against Bush. He was described as wooden, humorless, boring.
The KEY to using this sort of humor in a serious situation is the follow-up. Reagan would always follow up with something serious. He disarmed the opposition without offending people (other than maybe his political opposition’s strategist but oh well) and then followed up with something more serious, a key point of substance he wanted to make.
It is useful and I have personally quite used this effectively on the fly. After receiving a large federal grant for a bi-national project, I made a presentation to an influential group of businessmen in Mexico because their support was essential to getting key institutions on board. After my brief presentation with power point, one man stood up and thanked me for taking the time to drive all the way to Mexicali from San Diego, and it sounded great, etc. But then after the niceties, he launched into a litany of ways in which San Diego, California and the US has failed Mexican and then ended with why would we want to work with you now since you have stolen our water? Every set of eyes in that room was on me, I knew I was going to win or lose this group right then and there. I looked at him and said, well, I don’t know if you know this but I am actually from Kansas, and while we have water issues, I am pretty sure we didn’t steal your water. I said it with a big smile on my face. And everyone laughed. I had diffused the situation and then I immediately followed up with something serious about how I understood the management of the Colorado River was complex and I understood why Mexico especially Mexicali felt the way they did. But that was a different issue from our project. And that I would understand if he felt so strongly about this he couldn’t participate but knew he was alway welcome at the table if he changed his mind. I had many of the businessmen come to me after and said how well I handled the situation.
Like any tool, humor can be useful in everyone’s tool box, including women. Like any tool, you need to learn how to use it. That takes a lot of practice. It was easy to dismiss Reagan as lazy, or not give him credit because he was an actor, because he knew how to communicate. Yes, he had natural charisma. But don’t forget, he was a B actor. He worked really really hard. He wrote and rewrote large sections of his speeches. He practiced over and over for his debates. He was a prodigious reader. He reached out to the experts who wrote the briefing papers and had them elaborate. He worked really hard at his communication.