Muscular Language | A gender-discourse activity

Man Meets Woman by Yang Liu

I’ve observed that in meetings and other forums, female managers all too frequently offer their perspectives couched in tentative language or hedge their opinions when they ought to be asserting their views more compellingly.  I recently read an article (Women find your voice) in the Harvard Business Review that validated my observations through research done on how men view women and women view themselves in meetings:

 “The male managers we interviewed were well aware that women often have a hard time making their otherwise strong voices heard in meetings, either because they’re not speaking loudly enough or because they can’t find a way to break into the conversation at all. More than a third of indicated that when their female peers do speak up, they fail to articulate a strong point of view. Half said that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly, and fail to back up opinions with evidence.” (Heath, Flynn & Dolt, p.119)

The team behind the research believe that although their investigation focused exclusively on women, their findings could also apply to professionals from other cultural orientations as well as men who have more reserved personalities. This struck a chord with me because if you’re from a collectivistic, cooperative culture (like India and like a lot of Asia) where you are not used to asserting your opinion, let alone doing so with strong language, it could be challenging to convince colleagues about your views. This is compounded by an indirect style of speaking.

The article inspired me to design an activity which could be used specifically with female professionals and managers or with learners in intercultural settings.


It might be a good idea to read the HBR article before you run this activity.


  • Photocopy and cut up page 1 for the lead-in activity based on how many groups you’re going to create.
  • You’ll need copies of pages 2-3 from this handout for each participant.



  • Lead-in to the activity by whetting Ss’ appetites about this topic. Board “Men and women speak differently in meetings.” Ask Ss to work in pairs or groups to discuss their opinions on this topic. Ask them to consider why they agree or disagree and their own experiences. This might be a good time to monitor and write down language that the Ss are using to express their opinions as it will probably dovetail into the language you are looking to highlight. Take whole class feedback.
  • Tell the Ss that a team of researchers did some work in this area and they asked male professionals to evaluate how their female colleagues spoke in meetings. They also asked women to evaluate themselves on their meeting participation style. Signpost the cut-ups and say that you have some comments from the research – from both men and women. However, they are jumbled up and most of the pronouns have been removed. In pairs, Ss will need to decide which comments belongs to the ‘he said’ column and which to ‘she said’. Pre-teach ‘off the cuff’, ‘fully at the table’ and ‘repackage’ if required.
  • After confirming answers, ask Ss to summarize what the male point of view is (women are defensive and emotional and unable to speak concisely and confidently) and the female point of view (women like to prepare and are passionate about sharing new ideas but feel discouraged by others).
  • Interestingly, in these interviews, “men acknowledged that women often struggled to make themselves heard at meetings, but they didn’t always agree with their female peers about the reasons”. (Heath, Flynn & Dolt, p.120)

Muscular language


  • Ask Ss to skim the conversation and answer question 1. Share in pairs before taking whole class feedback.
  • Ss then scan and answer question 2.
  • Ask Ss what they think about Tanya’s style of communication in the meeting. Elicit that she needs to be more assertive, less defensive and not hedge her statements i.e., own her opinions more fully.  Elicit language that could enable Tanya to overcome some of these issues.

Language work

  • Have Ss go through the conversation and underline words or phrases that they think are weakening Tanya’s position.
  • Ask Ss work in pairs to use words from the Muscular Language box to make her utterances more assertive.
  • As an optional step, you could have Ss read out the conversation in groups using their reworked sentences, focusing on their tone and voice.


  • Ask Ss to role play the follow-up meeting on Friday where Tanya expresses her ideas more assertively. Remind them that she wants to create an optional mentoring program where people sign-up for self-development rather than being forced into it. Form groups of three or four and have an observer write down weak and muscular phrases used by his or her group members.
  • Alternatively ask Ss to select a scenario that’s relevant to them and role play it, expressing their opinions using more muscular language.


  • You may want to highlight aspects of Tanya’s style such as the fact she talks the most out of everyone in the meeting and yet doesn’t manage to get her point across or convince her peers. Ask Ss to notice how David sometimes cuts her off? Ask them what could be some of the reasons for this. Here are some more points from the research that you could discuss, referring Ss back to the transcript:
    • The research found that many women get ‘rattled’ when their ideas are challenged in meetings.
    • Some men state that their female peers don’t stay focused on the issue, go off topic, bringing in unrelated points without backing them up with facts.
    • Other men said that their female peers are not able to articulate a strong point of view and many allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly and don’t back up opinions with evidence
    • Men often describe women as getting defensive when questioned and sometimes panicking or freezing when they no longer hold the floor.
    • Women say that they often get lukewarm responses when they propose an opposing view after the group has already started to agree on an idea.
    • Women also say that they don’t like repeating others’ ideas in different words (repackaging) which is something they think their male colleagues do often.

I haven’t yet found an opportunity to use this activity with an all female group. It would be interesting to see how they respond to it. If you do happen to run this activity with your learners, please share your feedback. I’d be curious to know how Ss around the world react to these findings.


  • Lead-in activity and ‘Muscular language’ adapted from Heath, K., Flynn, J. & Dolt, M.D. Women, Find Your Voice in Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
  • Comic strip created using Pixton

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