Talking the Talk, Communication Skills for Women Scientists

by Linda F. Anderson, NCI

Science may be a common language that bridges gaps between researchers, but as some female NIH scientists are finding out, women may be able to enhance their effectiveness in the scientific workplace by understanding gender differences in communication and adopting some of the verbal strategies typically used by men.

Helane Jeffreys, a consultant who recently taught communications workshops for women scientists at NICHD and NCI, says men and women often learn different communication skills as they grow up. For example, Jeffreys says, men tend to use direct language, while women are inclined to be indirect. Men generally speak out in group situations, while women are more likely to encourage discussion and consensus. And men choose words that convey confidence, while women frequently add qualifiers to their remarks, such as "maybe," even when they are certain of what they are saying.

Ida Owens

Ida Owens with David Rubaltelli

By adding male communication skills to their repertoires, Jeffreys contends, women gain the power to communicate ideas more effectively, obtain credit and visibility, manage conflict situations, and negotiate - areas of concern for many women scientists.

However, it took some convincing to persuade some female researchers that communications can play an important role in shaping the trajectory of a scientific career. "I did not want to go to the workshop," says Kathy Partin, a postdoc at NICHD. "I had a philosophy of nonseparation [of the sexes]. But after hearing so many similar comments from the other women workshop participants about communications difficulties, it seemed to me that there was some common factor that affected an ability of women to compete." A spinoff benefit, she says, was meeting many successful women scientists who are role models.

The first two workshops were organized by Peng Loh, chief of NICHD's Cellular Neurobiology Section, and Elaine Ron, a senior scientist in NCI's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, and sponsored by Arthur S. Levine, scientific director of NICHD, and Joseph Fraumeni Jr., director of NCI's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. Rebecca DerSimonian, a mathematical statistician in NICHD's Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research, subsequently organized a second NICHD workshop, which was sponsored by Heinz Berendes, director of the division.

The feedback from workshop participants was very positive, report Loh, Ron, and DerSimonian, who are all members of NIH's Women Scientist Advisors Committee. "Our group was very enthusiastic," says Loh. "We had primarily tenured or tenure-track scientists, including GS-13 staff scientists, and some postdoctoral scientists. Everyone in all those categories said they benefited."

During the one-day workshops, which included exercises, role playing, and videotaped coaching, female scientists learned how the impact of an idea is weakened by adding qualifiers or nullifiers, such as the phrase, "I'm not sure, but," or by framing thoughts as questions. Such tentativeness is confusing, explains Jeffreys, and can result in someone else rephrasing the same idea as a statement and gaining the credit - a situation that women researchers say has often occurred in their own experiences.

Patricia Hartge, a deputy branch chief in NCI's epidemiology and genetics division, agrees with most of Jeffreys' assessments. However, Hartge notes that women use qualifiers and nullifiers even when speaking to other women so it is more than just an issue of how men and women communicate with each other.

At the workshop, the scientists also practiced alternatives to the familiar "fight-or-flight" response to confrontation - alternatives that enable a woman, scientist to start a constructive dialogue and give her more time to clarify issues and negotiate solutions. For example, when denied a request for research resources, a woman scientist's first inclination may be to simply concede or to respond in an argumentative way. Instead, Jeffreys suggests a third approach, in which the female researcher paraphrases the essence of the negative response to prompt the speaker for more information, thus allowing an exchange to develop that may reveal the underlying problem and perhaps lead to a different outcome. "It does work," says Loh, who has since used the technique and has become more aware of when others effectively use it. "I now know how to gain more information rather than have the conversation come to early closure," adds Susan Sturgeon, an NCI postdoc.

Elaine Ron

Elaine Ron

Other exercises focused on noncombative and nondefensive communication techniques, such as a three-step process in which the woman scientist acknowledges the other speaker's remarks, articulates her own viewpoint, and then presents her rationale. The exercises brought new awareness about what transpires in conflict situations, says Ida Owens, a section chief in NICHD. "[I learned that] it's okay to disagree with someone without feeling you're being aggressive," says Helen Weiss, an NCI postdoc. However, some junior women scientists express concern about how senior scientists would respond to assertive statements from their underlings.

Another component of good communications is listening - a particularly difficult task for many researchers. Instead of listening, Jeffreys says, people often jump in with their own solutions, losing a chance to better understand the speaker's thoughts and to allow the speaker to arrive at his or her own solutions. Ron, Hartge, and other women scientists confess to being "solution leapers." However, as Ron observes, sometimes scientific colleagues genuinely are seeking solutions, so a researcher's task must be to determine which behavior - listening or problem solving - is desired in a given situation.Nevertheless, Ron says, "I learned the value of not interrupting, and I'm working on it. As a New Yorker, that's a problem I have. I like to finish sentences."

Hartge says the workshop helped her to crystallize a strategy that senior women scientists can use to help junior scientists gain the confidence to participate in scientific forums. In Hartge's scenario, a senior scientist would pave the way by opening the discussion and then shepherding the junior scientist, who may be fearful of criticism or uncertain of the value of her comments, into the conversation. "Rather than my taking the floor to communicate the thought alone, my job is to get the junior scientist there and show them that it isn't so bloody," she says.

The workshop proved to be a confidence booster for junior scientists as well. Soon after the workshop, NCI's Sturgeon says she confidently discussed her newly published study with a renowned epidemiologist on National Public Radio. And NICHD's Partin says the communications pointers have helped in her job hunt. "Every time I go for a [job] interview, I'm speaking with 15 to 20 faculty, and many of them are men," Partin says. "Sometimes they use subtle hostility or try to put my feet to the fire. I feel much more confident about the interaction."

Lest anyone think that women scientists are the only ones who need to improve their communications skills, Jeffrey adds that she also teaches courses for men: "What is wanted is women with men's skills, and men with women's skills."

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