Obama’s “Feminine” Communication Style

A few weeks ago, Kathleen Parker, a writer for the Washington Post, likened Obama to a woman because of his negotiation style, calling him the first female president. (See the article here.)  Confronted with crises and criticisms, our President hasn’t responded in the alpha dog style of many male politicians. Instead, he’s a listener and talks it out. Traditionally, according to Parker, these methods are exercised almost exclusively by women. While the author is quick to commend the President on this refreshing change from the norm, she also points out that his style, especially in response to crises like the BP oil disaster, may have decreased his effectiveness.  Does this mean that women, in negotiating and communicating in this talk-it-out method are also less effective? Or is that assessment only true of men who adopt that style? The article goes on to cite research from University of Minnesota Professor Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, who asserts that men can adopt feminine communication styles without the consequence of being labelled as ineffective. Parker, however, isn’t convinced that Obama hasn’t suffered for his adoption. 

Additionally, women are generally viewed as effective communicators while employing “feminine” communication styles, but have been chastised for taking on styles normally attributed to men. For example, Hillary Clinton has received continual criticism for talking too assertively. (For more on this, see my book chapter with others on gender, politics and negotiation or  my article comparing Clinton’s experience to female lawyers)  On the other hand, female candidates who are perceived as likable might also be trivalized.  (See a great Newsweek article from early July–Too Hot to Handle)

Parker’s article seems to suggest, contrary to Campbell’s findings, that men are subject to equal amounts of criticism. What do you think? Would you agree that Obama’s style, in comparison to past presidents and to the stereotypical male politician, is “feminine” and that he is suffering as a result of that adoption? Is this sentiment true of other men who adopt the “listener” style?

4 thoughts on “Obama’s “Feminine” Communication Style”

  1. Although similar criticized was leveled during the campaign (must counter-punch, too professorial, aloof), he eventually came out on top against the archetypal warrior alpha male. So far, it appears to me that his approach has been successful, but only time will tell. We’ll see what happens when the next iteration of alpha male warrior approaches in the form of Mitt “No Apologies” Romney and Sarah “Crosshairs” Palin.

  2. Referring to male and female communication styles oversimplifies something more nuanced. It also promotes stereotyping. Frankly, I thought Parker’s article was provocative without recognizing the complex and varied communication skills the President actually uses. The President does not exude bravado as many politicians do. Instead, he listens carefully, connects to the person and specific concerns, offers different ways of looking at the same situation and suggests alternatives. That is seen by some as wishy washy. However, it is the most effective path to durable solutions.

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