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Journal of Sociolinguistics 10/1, 2006: 31^51

‘Doing femininity’ at work: More than

just relational practice1

Janet Holmes and Stephanie Schnurr

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Workplaces constitute one of the more interesting sites where individuals

‘do gender’, while at the same time constructing their professional identities
and meeting their organisation’s expectations. Drawing on interactional
data recorded in New Zealand professional organisations, this paper focuses in
particular on how participants manage and interpret the notion of ‘femininity’
in workplace discourse. In much current usage, the concepts ‘feminine’ and
‘femininity’ typically evoke negative reactions. Our analysis suggests these
notions can be reclaimed and reinterpreted positively using an approach
which frames doing femininity at work as normal, unmarked, and effective
workplace behaviour in many contexts. The analysis also demonstrates that
multiple femininities extend beyond normative expectations, such as enacting
relational practice (Fletcher 1999), to embrace more contestive and parodic
instantiations of femininity in workplace talk.
KEYWORDS: Workplace discourse, femininities, gender identity, relational
practice, community of practice

Researchers in the area of language and gender have recently begun to
examine the ‘multiplicity of experiences of gender’ (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet
2003: 47) in different social contexts and communities of practice. A number
of researchers, for example, have explored the concept of masculinity, and
indeed ‘masculinities’ (Connell 1995; Cameron 1997; Edley and Wetherell 1997;
Johnson and Meinhof 1997; Kiesling 1998, 2004; Bucholtz 1999; Mea“ n 2001;
Coates 2003; Bell and Major 2004). Some attention has also been paid to ‘the
multiplicity of . . . femininities’ (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003: 48), that
is, the dynamic and diverse ways in which people construct different kinds of
femininity in social interaction in different contexts (e.g. Okamoto 1995; Livia
and Hall 1997; Cameron 1997, 1998; Coates 1997, 1999; Cameron and Kulick
2003). This paper contributes to this enterprise by analysing some of the ways
in which people construct and negotiate different femininities in white-collar
New Zealand workplaces.

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9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA.

Femininity is an ambiguous concept with complex associations. It could even

be argued that ‘femininity’ has been treated as something of a dirty word in
gender studies, associated, from a feminist perspective, with a rather dubious
set of behaviours. Most obviously, acting ‘feminine’ conjures up politically
incorrect ‘frilly pink party dresses’; femininity is associated with demureness,
deference, and lack of power and influence (as discussed in Eckert and
McConnell-Ginet 2003: 16ff, 184ff; see also Lakoff 2004). Femininity invokes
a stereotype, and it is a negative one for many feminists, and a problematic
and uncomfortable one for many academic women.2 Discussing this issue,
Mills (2003) implicitly subscribes to this negative attitude: ‘one of the many
important advances made by feminism is to open up within the notion of what
it means to be a woman a distinction between femininity and femaleness, so
that one can be a woman without considering oneself to be (or others consider-
ing one to be) feminine’ (Mills 2003: 188). Accepting such a claim entails
subscribing to the view that ‘feminine’ and ‘femininity’ are dirty words which
must be replaced by the euphemisms ‘female’ and ‘femaleness’. But is this
necessary? We argue that ‘feminine’can be reclaimed as a positive attribute.
In contesting the denigration and rejection of the words ‘feminine’ and
‘femininity’, it is important to note that the basis for this negative stereotype is
the exaggeration of features which are associated with the construction by
women of a normative gender identity. The exaggeration evokes derision. As
Mills herself notes, in the media‘the representation of stereotypically feminine
women is rarely presented . . . without mockery or ridicule’ (2003: 187).3 But
this should not mean that the enactment of normatively feminine behaviour
should be a cause for embarrassment and apology by professional women (or
men) in the workplace.
In what follows, we attempt to re-present the notion of femininity as a
positive rather than a negative construction in workplace interaction. We
analyse a number of specific examples which illustrate the negotiation of a
range of femininities at work.We draw on the notion of a gendered community
of practice (Holmes and Stubbe 2003a), in which certain kinds of gender
performance are perceived as ‘unmarked’ (Ochs 1992: 343), or ‘‘‘normal’’
behaviour’ (Kiesling 2004: 234), while others are regarded as marked or
‘emphasised’ (Connell 1987: 187). Building on the notion that ^ through their
association with particular roles, activities, traits, and stances ^ certain socio-
pragmatic, discursive and linguistic choices, or ways of speaking, ‘index’
(Ochs 1992, 1996) or culturally encode gender (Cameron and Kulick 2003: 57),
we explore the different ways of ‘doing femininity’ identified in our workplace
In a recent paper examining the ways in which authority is constructed in
workplace interaction, Kendall (2004) suggests that gender identity is often
irrelevant in the workplace. She argues that in everyday interaction people
focus on role construction rather than gender identity: ‘women and men do
not generally choose linguistic strategies for the purpose of creating masculine
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or feminine identities’ (2004: 56) . . . ‘situations in which women and men

consciously choose language options to create femininity and masculinity are
rare’ (2004: 76). Certainly gender is not frequently a conscious focus of identity
performance at work (but see Hall 1995, 2003; Besnier 2003). Nonetheless, the
distinction between two types of social identity is not always easy to make,
especially when particular linguistic features are associated with more than
one kind of identity (e.g. masculinity and leadership, femininity and sub-
ordination/server status). As Cameron and Kulick note, in some cases ‘the
same way of speaking signifies both a professional identity and a gendered
identity, and in practice these are difficult to separate: the two meanings
coexist, and both of them are always potentially relevant. The actual balance
between them is not determined in advance by some general principle, but has
to be negotiated in specific situations’ (2003: 58).
In our view, then, gender is relevant at some level in every workplace inter-
action, an ever-present influence on how we behave, and how we interpret
others’ behaviour, even if our level of awareness of this influence varies from
one interaction to another, and from moment to moment within an inter-
action.4 We are always aware of the gender of those we are talking to, and we
bring to every workplace interaction our familiarity with societal gender
stereotypes, and the gendered norms to which women and men are expected
to conform (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003: 87).Workplaces are simply one
of many sites for gender performances which have the potential to strengthen
the ‘gender order’ (Connell 1987); and while in some professions ‘doing gender’
is quite central to workplace performance, in all workplaces individuals
unavoidably enact gendered roles, adopt recognisably gendered stances, and
construct gender identity in the process of interacting with others at work.
In addition, there are situations in which people exploit their audience’s
familiarity with stereotypical concepts of femininity or masculinity in a more
conscious fashion for particular effect, as we illustrate below. The concept of
‘double voicing’ (Bakhtin 1984) is relevant here, accounting for the ways in
which speakers mingle components of different styles for particular effect.
Talk which indexes gender in exaggerated or over-emphatic ways may be
manipulated for the purpose, for instance, of parodying and even subverting
established workplace norms and expectations about appropriate ways
for professional employees to behave at work. The ability to interpret and
appreciate the social meaning of such gender performances depends inevitably
on recognition of what constitutes an unmarked gender performance or
‘unmarked behaviours for a [particular] sex’ (Ochs 1992: 343) in a particular
community of practice. The first section of the analysis addresses, therefore,
the issue of the construction of unmarked femininity in particular commu-
nities of practice.
The data we draw on was collected by the Wellington Language in the
Workplace (LWP) Project (see; Holmes and Stubbe
2003b). The Project includes material from a wide variety of New Zealand
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workplaces, and uses a methodology which allows workplace interactions to be

recorded as unobtrusively as possible. The LWP corpus currently comprises
over 2500 workplace interactions, involving around 400 participants. In this
paper, we draw on data from white-collar professional workplaces in order to
explore the ways in which workplace participants, and especially workplace
managers, construct complex femininities in different discourse contexts
within particular communities of practice.


We begin by considering what it means to behave in a normatively feminine
way in a recognisably feminine community of practice. Holmes and Stubbe
(2003a) explored the notion of ‘gendered’ workplaces, and examined some of
the discourse features which people use to characterise the organisational
culture of different workplaces as being relatively more ‘feminine’ or ‘mascu-
line’. Describing workplaces in this way does not indicate that everyone in a
particular workplace behaves in a consistently gendered manner; rather these
labels act as a shorthand, indicating the expectations and constraints on
gender performances in some contexts in those workplaces.5 Indeed our
analyses demonstrate that the characteristics stereotypically associated with
such generalisations are often inaccurate, and that day-to-day interactions in
particular communities of practice typically challenge the generalisations.
Nevertheless, it was clear that those participating in our research, as well as
members of the wider New Zealand community, were very willing to identify
some workplaces as particularly feminine and others as very masculine. And
such perceptions inevitably affect expectations about appropriate behaviour
including ways of speaking. IT companies and manufacturing organisations
typically tended to be labelled as more masculine workplaces, while organisa-
tions (and especially government departments) which dealt directly with
clients, or with people-oriented, social issues, or with education, tended to be
perceived as more feminine places to work.
Within such workplaces people draw from a range of linguistic and discur-
sive resources to construct their identities as ‘professionals’ in workplace
interaction, and to negotiate particular pragmatic functions, such as giving
directives, criticising, disagreeing, approving, and so on. Their choices index
particular stances (e.g. authoritative, consultative, deferential) which con-
struct not only their particular professional identities or roles (e.g. manager,
team leader, support person), but also their gender positioning (see, for example,
Holmes, Stubbe and Vine 1999; Holmes and Stubbe 2003a; Kendall 2003,
2004). This is the most obvious way in which people enact conventional
gender identities at work ^ through linguistic and discursive choices which
indirectly index normative femininity whilst also instantiating a particular
professional relationship. Example 1 illustrates this in a community of practice

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described by its members, as well as by outsiders, as a very feminine community

of practice:

Example 16
Context: Ruth is the department manager. Nell is a policy analyst. Nell has prepared an
official letter on which Ruth is giving her some feedback.7
1. Ruth: it’s actually quite I mean it’s
2. it’s well written [inhales] I just have
3. I just think the approach is could
4. should be a bit different in terms of see like
5. the organisation wouldn’t
6. we wouldn’t usually say something like this
7. that I mean it’s true but um we should probably
8. put in there that um the organisation has
9. what we did actually in terms of
10. providing advice on other avenues of funding
11. /but\ what the organisation ¼
12. Nell: /mm\
13. Ruth: ¼ provides is a policy advice organisation
14. and does not have um þþ
15. they actually have only limited funding for
16. sponsorship þ (and) I’ve just realised though
17. that this is (like) that they go in a couple of weeks
18. it might have been worth talking to Stacey
19. about um funding through
20. I think it’s through [name of funding agency]
21. ( ) last year we got funding for [tut] a someone
22. from [name of organisation] to attend
23. an international conference [drawls]:in: India
24. I think þ I can’t remember exactly the criteria
25. but there is a fund there and it may might be a bit late
26. but just I mean Stacey knows the contacts
27. and I think it’s in [name of funding agency]
28. and whether or not it’s worth having a talk to them about . . .

Ruth wants Nell to make some amendments to the letter, and the interaction is
clearly potentially face threatening. Ruth’s strategy for conveying her critical
comments and her directives entails the use of a range of classic face-saving
mitigation devices. In this short interaction, she uses a variety of hedges and
minimisers (in bold above): could, may, might, probably, just (2), actually (3), I
mean (3) and I think (5), and approximators, a bit, I think it was, I can’t remember
exactly, etc. These devices minimise the force of the face-threatening implicit
criticisms and directive speech acts, and pay attention to Nell’s face needs
(Brown and Levinson 1987).8
Ruth also minimises the critical implications of her comments by emphasising
the positive. So she begins by highlighting the fact that Nell’s version of the

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letter is fine, it’s well written (line 2). She also acknowledges that what Nell has
said is true (line 7), but comments that it is not the usual way of doing things
in the organisation. The shift from the organisation (line 8) to the use of the
pronoun we (line 9) which is strategically ambiguous between exclusive
and positively polite inclusive meaning (we wouldn’t usually say something like
this), allows Ruth to suggest that she and Nell are working on this together,
thereby again saving both interlocutors’ faces in a potentially tricky situation.
On this interpretation, mitigation is clearly at the core of this array of strategies.
From an analyst’s perspective, this is normatively feminine talk, characterised
by features which have been described in decades of language and gender
research (e.g. see Tannen 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Crawford 1995; Holmes 1995;
Aries 1996; Coates 1996; Wodak 1997; Talbot 1998; Romaine 1999). In this
section of her interaction with Nell, Ruth is making use of linguistic, pragmatic
and discursive devices which signal considerateness and positive affect,
stances associated with femaleness and feminine identity in New Zealand
society. These are, of course, just some of the available strategies for fulfilling
her role as manager, and in other contexts she draws on more confrontational,
authoritative, and direct strategies to achieve her goals (see, for example,
Holmes and Stubbe 2003b: 49). Example 1 serves, however, to illustrate an
interaction in which a middle-class professional woman performs her manage-
rial role in a way which also constructs a conventionally feminine gender
identity. It also serves as a linguistic instantiation of classic ‘relational practice’
(Fletcher 1999), that is, off-record, other-oriented behaviour which serves to
further workplace goals. In Fletcher’s analysis relational practice is paradigmati-
cally women’s work, and thus a quintessential example of ‘doing femininity’ at
work. In the community of practice in which these women worked, this gender
performance was unremarkable and ‘unmarked’. Being normatively feminine in
this community of practice did not arouse derision, and nor did it require apology.
Importantly, however, the perception of such behaviour as acceptable and
unmarked held true for professional women in many of the white-collar
workplaces in which we recorded. Doing feminine gender using the kinds of
strategies and linguistic devices described above was typically perceived as
unmarked, as simply one component of performing their professional identity
in particular interactions in a very wide range of communities of practice.
Feminine behaviour, in other words, was regarded as normal behaviour in
such contexts, and hence can be re-classified positively rather than derided.
When men ‘do femininity’ at work, however, the perceptions of, and
reactions to, their behaviour are much more complex. For example, in our
data, when men made use of discourse strategies and linguistic devices asso-
ciated with normatively feminine behaviour, the responses varied significantly
on different occasions in different communities of practice. In a relatively
feminine community of practice, the use by a male of linguistic markers of
considerateness and concern for the addressee’s face needs, such as those
identified in Example 1, when used in a similar professional context, occasioned
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no comment. Indeed, our ethnographic observations and interviews, indicate

that such behaviour was regarded as normal, appropriate and unmarked.
An example of such normatively feminine behaviour by a male in a department
with education as its core business, is provided in Holmes and Stubbe (2003b: 32).
Giving a directive to a subordinate, Len, the manager, uses a range of mitigating
strategies, including hedges, modalised interrogatives, minimisers, and hesitations,
devices which very closely match those used by Ruth in Example 1. In the context
where he works, this linguistic behaviour was considered perfectly appropriate;
it did not attract comment as ‘marked’ in any respect, and his colleagues clearly
regarded his linguistic and discursive style as unremarkable.
Example 2 illustrates the same pattern in a different community of practice.
It is taken from a meeting in one section of a large organisation; the section
has specific responsibility for meeting the needs of the organisation’s clients.
Smithy, the male project manager, engages in facilitative behaviour by drawing
the attention of the chair to a contribution which merits praise:9
Example 2
Context: Large project team meeting in commercial organisation. The project manager,
Smithy, is reporting on the project’s progress to the section manager, Clara.
1. Smithy: um service level team to produce
2. a strategy document they’ve done þ
3. umVita was to meet with I S to determine er
4. an implementation plan for the recording device
5. Vita: yes done it þ
6. Smithy: [parenthetical tone] Vita’s done a um work plan
7. just for that/um implementation\ and that
8. Clara: great/that’ll make the plan easier\
9. Smithy: we can feed/(out what) you want\
10. Vita: /haven’t actually\(heard anything . . .)
11. Smithy: Vita’s going to meet with Stewart
12. to determine how 0800 numbers
13. come in to the call centre

In lines 1^4, Smithy reports on what the team agreed Vita should do by this meet-
ing, and in line 5, Vita confirms that she has indeed accomplished the specified
task. Since Clara, the Department manager, makes no immediate response, Smithy
proceeds to‘prime’ Clara to provide positive feedback to Vita (Vita’s done a work plan
just for that implementation, lines 6^7). Clara responds appropriately in line 8 with
a positive and appreciative comment, and Smithy then continues with the next
item. Smithy’s facilitative move is made extremely discreetly, and Clara picks up his
cue without missing a beat. This is a nice example of relational practice ^ subtle,
backgrounded discursive work, attending to collegial relationships and ensuring
that things run smoothly. Relational practice is quintessentially gendered as
‘feminine’ in Fletcher’s (1999) book Disappearing Acts, in which she argues
that relational skills are typically associated with women, and hence Smithy’s

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behaviour in Example 2 could be characterised as‘doing femininity’.This is just one

of many similar examples of Smithy’s style of workplace interaction which attracts
no comment, and appears to be regarded as normal and unremarkable behaviour
in context, even in this somewhat less feminine community of practice.
In neither Len’s workplace nor Smithy’s, then, does their use on occasion of a
normatively feminine style of discourse seem out of place, and nor does it
attract comment as ‘marked’ in any respect. Using linguistic features and
discourse strategies which attend to relational aspects of the interaction, and
index normative femininity, is perfectly acceptable as a way of performing
aspects of one’s professional identity within these communities of practice.
In other words ‘doing femininity’ is unmarked behaviour in such contexts,
whether it is performed by a man or a woman. Thus defined, normative
femininity can be regarded positively rather than treated as the focus of ridicule.


There are however, workplace contexts where using a feminine style can
evoke a very much less positive response. Especially in relatively masculine
communities of practice, the effective use of a normatively feminine style was
a much more complex and even hazardous enterprise. And men, in particular,
tended to be the target of negative comment for using stylistic features which
conventionally index femininity.
So, for example, the discursive behaviour of members of an IT team in a big
commercial organisation contrasted sharply with the norms of the places
where Ruth, Len and Smithy worked. There was, for instance, scarcely any
conventional small talk among team members before or after meetings.
Pre-meeting talk tended to be business-oriented, a chance to update on work
which team members were doing together in other contexts. In the six
meetings of this team that we videotaped in full, there is scarcely a single topic
that is not directly related to some aspect of the team’s work. And the humour
among these team members was predominantly aggressive and sarcastic, and
sometimes undeniably sexist (e.g. with references to nagging wives, and heavy
drinking with the boys).10 Over 90 percent of the humorous comments which
occurred in one meeting, for instance, were sarcastic and negative jibes,
intended to put down the addressee or to deflate them. Behaviour which was
perceived as ‘soft’ or conventionally ‘feminine’ elicited a very different reaction
in this community of practice from the way it was treated by Ruth’s colleagues
and in Len’s workplace, as Example 3 demonstrates:
Example 311
Context: Six men in a regular meeting of a project team in a large commercial organisation.
They are discussing a technical issue related to a project for some clients. Callum’s
colleagues pretend to be horrified that he has actually talked face-to-face with the clients.

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1. Barry: but we can we can kill this/particular action\ point

2. Marco: /well yep\ you can kill
3. this particular action point
4. Barry: and you/guys\
5. Callum: /are\ you sure þþþ I took the opportunity
6. of talking with some of the users
7. Barry: what again? [laughs]/[laughs]\
8. Marco: /not again what are you doing talking to them\
9. Barry: [laughs]: go on/Callum come on\
10. Marco: /[laughs]\
11. Callum: and th- and they th- þþ
12. Marco: they’ve still got/issues\
13. Callum /(I I I)\ well þ I don’t think they’re sure? þ
14. ( ) if they’re really issues or not
The group of men here make fun of Callum for engaging voluntarily in ‘communi-
cative’ behaviour with clients. Using stereotypically masculine language, Barry
and Marco suggest that a proposed action, namely dealing with a specific technical
issue, be killed, that is, dropped (lines1^3), since it is peripheral to the main project.
Callum interrupts with a protest, using a question are you sure (line 5), rather than
a more aggressive form of challenge. Even so, the three-second pause suggests that
his comment causes surprise. He goes on to point out that the proposed action
emerged from his discussions with the people who will be using the programme
(lines 6^7). Barry and Marco then proceed to mock Callum, ridiculing the notion
that he should actually ‘talk’, that is verbally communicate face-to-face, with
clients. Barry’s tone of voice in his question what again? (line 7) conveys mocking
astonishment, and Barry’s Callum come on (line 9) is drawled with a rise-fall
intonation indicating sardonic incredulity. Callum persists, despite the mockery,
and maintains his relatively feminine approach, I don’t think they’re sure? if they’re
really issues or not (lines13^14) with a high rising terminal on sure, a feature coded
as feminine in New Zealand speech. He is also reporting behaviour that is stereo-
typically feminine, namely, these people don’t know what they think, thus risking
tarring himself with the same brush byassociation.
This short excerpt illustrates how this group of professional IT experts con-
struct themselves as a very masculine community of practice; both in content
(e.g. kill this point) and style: they contest each other’s statements very directly,
and the floor is a competitive site where they interrupt one another freely. In
this context, Callum’s verbal behaviour is clearly ‘marked’. The underlying
(only slightly facetious) assumption is that ‘real men’ (and especially computer
experts) do not ever actually talk face-to-face with clients; talking to clients is
rather the responsibility of the support staff at the user interface, many of
whom are, unsurprisingly, women. Indeed, contributing more than the
minimal amount of talk seems to be generally regarded as relatively feminine
behaviour within the culture of this IT project team, where the most senior
participant in the team meetings contributes the least talk. In this exchange,

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then, the team members imply that Callum has behaved in an unmasculine
way, and mock his conventionally feminine approach.
Example 4 provides another suggestive illustration of the kind of response
elicited by normatively feminine behaviour in a relatively masculine commun-
ity of practice. It is an excerpt from an interaction between members of the
senior management team in Company S, a community of practice similar in
some ways to the IT team described above. Many of the norms for interaction
between the all-male members of this team are stereotypically masculine, with
relational practice expressed through contestive humour, jocular insult, and
extensive competitive teasing (see Schnurr forthcoming). During the period
that we recorded, a new member of the team, Neil, was being inculcated into
the team culture, the normal ‘way we do things around here’ (Bower 1966,
cited in Clouse and Spurgeon 1995: 3), often through teasing and sarcastic
comment on features of his behaviour which were regarded as inappropriate
in the context of the team’s usual ways of interacting. On one occasion, for
instance, he took seriously a negative critical response to his excuse for not
being able to attend a meeting. It was clear from the reactions of others, as
well as the subsequent discourse, that the criticism was intended as jocular.
But Neil misinterpreted Shaun’s tone, and responded in a way that the other
team members clearly regarded as inappropriately fulsome. Our observations
and analyses in this rather masculine community of practice suggest that one
dimension of this inappropriateness was the association of apologetic and
mitigating language with relatively feminine ways of talking.

Example 4
Context: Meeting of the senior management team in middle-sized IT company. Neil
apologises for not being able to attend the first monthly staff meeting to which he has
been invited.
1. Shaun: okay but I think it’s important
2. you do go to the staff meeting
3. and get introduced
4. Neil: yeah . . . . . . . . .
5. er I can’t do it today unfortunately I’ve
6. I’ve already booked in some time
7. with someone else this afternoon
8. but the next one I can come along to yeah
9. Shaun: we’ll think about it
10. Neil: pardon
11. Shaun: we’ll think about it
12. Neil: /[laughs]\
13. Shaun: /we don’t take kindly to\ being rejected
14. Neil: oh I’m sorry I’ve got a yeah got a meeting
15. this afternoon which I can’t get out of
16. if I’d have known I would’ve changed it yeah
17. Shaun: what is our formal position on Neil (5)

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Neil needs to be introduced to the wider staff of the organisation (lines 1^3).
The fact that he is not free to attend (lines 5^8) provides an opportunity for
Shaun to tease him for rejecting their invitation (lines 9, 11, 13). Neil does not
recognise that he is being teased, and he responds seriously to Shaun’s com-
ment we don’t take kindly to being rejected (line 13), with an elaboration of his
excuse (lines 14^16). His response is marked by a number of appeasement
devices (e.g. apology, excuse; he even claims he would have changed his
appointment if he had known that he was expected to attend the staff meeting
(line 16)). Shaun does not respond, however, to Neil’s attempt at appeasement;
rather he replies in a very challenging tone with a confrontational, direct
attack on Neil’s status: what is our formal position on Neil (line 17).
Neil’s inappropriately elaborate apology could be regarded as overly conciliatory,
a stance strongly associated with more feminine styles of interaction. It clearly
marks him as an outsider to the team, a team which our ethnographic data
indicates forms a very close-knit community of practice, with a number of
normatively masculine norms of interaction, as mentioned above. Clearly then,
ways of talking which conventionally index femininity can function as unmarked
in some communities of practice, while the same discourse strategies and linguistic
features may be perceived as marked and comment-worthy in others.We turn now
to the discussion of a rather different way in which women may exploit gendered
norms of interaction at work, drawing on the conventional indices of femininity
for particular, and sometimes subversive, purposes.


The extensive exploration of style and styling in the speech of those from a
diverse range of social, ethnic and gender backgrounds (e.g. Bell 1999, 2001;
Bucholtz 1999; Johnstone 1999, 2003; Rampton 1999, 2003) provides a useful
framework for discussing the ways in which some New Zealand women exploit
features of normative and even stereotypical femininity in workplace inter-
action. As these researchers note, Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of ‘double voicing’
provides a way of accounting for the mingling of stereotypical components of
another style with ‘habitual speech patterns’ to ‘generate symbolically con-
densed dialogues between self and other’ (Rampton 1999: 422). In particular,
this approach provides a way of describing how professional women in the
workplace make strategic use of linguistic features associated with stereotypical
femininity to parody, and thus implicitly contest and ‘trouble’ the images of
women and the gender categories that such features support and maintain
(Butler 1990; Bell, Binnie, Cream and Valentine 1994: 31; Jones 2000).
In our data, this particular kind of double voicing, namely the ‘strategic use
of an ingroup variety’ (Johnstone 1999: 514), was observable in the behaviour
of senior women who were secure in their professional identity.12 This strategy
allowed them to make use of features which might otherwise be misinterpreted
as ‘serious’ rather than ironic. Traditionally, the concept of leadership has

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been associated with dominant, hegemonic masculinity: ‘what counts as

leadership, the means of gaining legitimacy in leadership, and so on, are male
dominated in most organizations’ (Hearn and Parkin 1988: 27). Consequently,
‘the language of leadership often equates with the language of masculinity’
(Hearn and Parkin 1988: 21). We found that effective women leaders typically
drew skilfully and competently on a wide range of discourse strategies,
some regarded as indexing conventional masculinity, and some as enacting
normative femininity, to accomplish both their transactional and relational
goals (Holmes 2000; Stubbe, Holmes,Vine and Marra 2000).
Jill, for example, is a company director in a small IT company, and the chair
of the company Board. She appears to enjoy her position as a woman in the
predominantly masculine world of IT (Trauth 2002), as evidenced by many
aspects of her behaviour (see Schnurr forthcoming). Our recordings indicate
that Jill makes use of a wide range of interactional strategies and ways of talking,
including some which can be regarded as normatively feminine, constructing
her female gender in a conventional, unmarked and unselfconscious way within
a range of workplace interactions, while at other times she draws on more
conventionally masculine strategies. So, at times she uses conventionally polite
discourse, standard relational practice in Fletcher’s (1999) sense, apologising for
interrupting a subordinate, for instance, can I be a real pain and interrupt you
again, and making use of a variety of facilitative and supportive strategies in
running a meeting. At other points, she uses more direct and forceful strategies,
interrupting small talk to start a meeting, for instance, and firmly asserting the
need to move on to the next point on the agenda.
In addition, however, Jill strategically ‘does femininity’on occasion, in a self-
aware and ironic fashion that both exploits and parodies gender stereotypes.
On such occasions, instead of playing down or minimising areas of difference
in gender display in her male-dominated workplace, as senior women
often do, she emphasises her femininity in a variety of ways, lampooning
stereotypical features of gender performance. In Example 5, for instance, she
plays up her helplessness and ignorance (albeit, importantly, with an ironic
element of self-parody):
Example 513
Context: Jill, chair of the Board of an IT company, has had a problem with her computer
and has consulted Douglas, a software engineer, for help. Returning to her office, she
reports her experience to her colleague, Lucy, a project manager in the company.
1. Jill: [walks into room] he just laughed at me
2. Lucy: [laughs]: oh no:
3. Jill: he’s definitely going to come to my aid
4. but ( ) he just sort of laughed at me
5. Lucy: [laughs]
6. Jill: (and then) I’ve got this appalling reputation
7. of being such a technical klutz and/( )\

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8. sometimes look it’s not me þ

9. Lucy: /[laughs]\
10. Jill: I work with what I’ve got þ/( )\
11. Lucy: /I know\ it’s the tools you’ve been prov/ided\
12. Jill: /that’s\ right þþþ
In this exchange, Jill constructs an image of herself as a stereotypical female:
as technically ignorant and incompetent, a technical klutz (line 7) in the area
of the organisation’s specialisation, computer technology. She describes how
her ignorance elicited laughter from the technical guy who was assisting her
(lines 1, 4). Although she laughingly refutes the implication of incompetence,
by blaming her tools (lines 8, 10), this excuse is clearly tongue-in-cheek or
ironic, since technical klutz is an identity she regularly adopts, playing up the
stereotypically feminine role of incompetent ignoramus in the IT area.14 The
exaggerated intonation and high pitch with which lines 8 and 10 are delivered
further underline Jill’s parodic intent.
Our extensive observational data indicate that Jill is a confident and
competent member of this professional organisation, and this, along with her
sardonic tone, supports an ironic (and even subversive) reading of her con-
struction of a stereotypical, ultra-feminine, identity. In other words, we could
interpret Jill’s gender performance here not as reinforcing the predominantly
masculine norms of her IT community of practice, but rather as troubling and
contesting the assumptions underlying them. By refusing to treat IT incompet-
ence as a serious matter, she implicitly questions the validity of the hegemonic
stereotype which discounts the competence of women who are technically
unsophisticated. Like the American adolescent girls Eder researched, Jill here
parodies ‘traditional norms about feminine behaviour’ (1993: 25), and, as a
demonstrably intelligent woman and competent manager, implicitly contests
them, thus transforming their role as unquestioned and unquestionable
reference points.
Unlike some women in IT workplaces in which we have observed, Jill does not
appear to feel any pressure to pretend that she is no different from a man. So,
for example, in response to a comment from her colleague Lucy that by not
having a computer monitor she will have space for a pot plant, she comments
humorously to a male colleague you can tell the girly office can’t you. Jill’s use of
the term girly here is superficially problematic since it appears to dismissively
endorse an ideology which denigrates women’s preferences. Analysing a
narrative in which a woman, Meg, uses the term girl in just such an oppressive
way, Coates (1997: 310) comments that Meg ‘presents herself as colluding in a
world view that denigrates and trivializes women’. But Jill’s usage here is differ-
ent. Firstly she is talking about herself, and secondly, the comment is in no
way apologetic in tone. Drawing on Bakhtin’s (1984) concept of ‘double
voicing’, an ironic reading is thus possible, a reading which is much more
consistent with Jill’s confident gender performance in this male-dominated
community of practice. So, for instance, she and Lucy take responsibility for the
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kitchen renovations, discussing paint and cushions with no sense that they need
to reject such a stereotypically feminine task. Although she holds a powerful
leadership position, Jill enacts her feminine identity with good-humoured
assurance, alongside an intelligent awareness of the dominant societal gender
stereotypes. Thus her use of the term girly office can be interpreted as indicating
her awareness of her male colleagues’gender stereotypes, along with an implicit
contestation and troubling of those views. By unapologetically embracing the
concept of a feminine space at work, and indicating its acceptability, this powerful
woman implies that she sees no contradiction between being statusful and being
feminine in this community of practice.
In another workplace the boss is known as ‘Queen Clara’, and addressed and
referred to by her staff with good-humoured irony as ‘your royal highness’.
Clara, like Jill, is perfectly secure both with her professional and her gender
identity, and draws comfortably on the full panoply of available discourse stra-
tegies, including those conventionally regarded as masculine, to do authority
when appropriate (see, for example, the ‘screendumps’ example in Holmes and
Marra 2002b: 391). Equally, Clara frequently behaves in normatively feminine
ways without any sense that this is inappropriate to her high status in the
It is possible that Clara and Jill, as senior women who refuse to conform to
the conventionally masculine norms associated with leadership (Ely 1988;
Hearn and Parkin 1988; Geis, Brown and Wolfe 1990; Maher 1997; Sinclair
1998), are effectively contesting the related widespread expectation that
workplaces (and especially those concerned with technology and IT) should
be regarded as uncompromisingly masculine domains (cf. Tannen 1994b;
Trauth 2002; Kendall 2003), where male patterns of interaction serve as the
unmarked model. Their secure attitude to the performance of their gender
identity in the workplace appears to free up these women to enjoy and exploit
stereotypical, and even hyperbolic ways of ‘doing femininity’. Clara and Jill
seem to revel in semi-facetiously and parodically ‘doing femininity’ in the
more off-record, peripheral aspects of their managerial roles, but they also
draw on both normatively masculine and feminine discourse resources in the
course of their everyday workplace interactions. As women who are secure in
their professional identities, it seems that they do not to need to downplay the
fact that they are female or minimise gender differences in aspects of their
behaviour in order to ensure they are taken seriously.

This paper has explored certain aspects of gender performance in the work-
place. We have discussed different femininities or ways of ‘doing femininity’,
and suggested that workplace interaction provides opportunities not only
for indexing normative femininity, a kind of gender performance which

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has been associated with ‘relational practice’ (Fletcher 1999), but, also for
parodying, contesting, and troubling gendered workplace expectations and
We have shown that the use of familiar and normative discourse resources
for indexing femininity by both women and men may elicit different responses
in different contexts within different communities of practice. We have
suggested that, especially in relatively feminine communities of practice, such
performances are frequently treated as ‘unmarked behaviours’ (Ochs 1992:
343), not just for women but for either sex. Indeed, in many contexts within
such communities of practice, the ability to discursively index conventional
femininity is regarded as an asset, and skill in adopting a feminine stance is
positively construed. There is no evidence here for the negative conception of
femininity which pervades much of the discussion of this concept. Feminine
behaviour is regarded as normal and assessed positively in many contexts
within such communities of practice.
On the other hand, we identified relatively low tolerance for aspects of
behaviour perceived as normatively feminine in some contexts, and especially
by men engaged in transactional, task-oriented interaction in more masculine
communities of practice. Features which are conventionally associated with
femininity may thus attract negative comment or derision in particular
workplace interactions, within particular workplace cultures. Though often
expressed in covert and implicit ways, such negative reactions could be
regarded as evidence of sexism in such workplaces.
More positively, identifying particular types of behaviour as markedly
feminine, also opens up the possibility for exploitation, and through a kind of
‘double-voicing’, for parody and ironic self-quotation. Language can be used
not only to enact and reinforce conventional gender positioning, the ‘gender
order’, but also to subvert unacceptable socio-cultural norms, and contest
restrictive concepts of professional identity at work. Hence, some senior
women in our data deliberately exploit feminine stereotypes, consciously
parodying conventional notions of how women should behave in the workplace
(cf. Koller 2004).
In conclusion, while professional identity might appear the most obviously
relevant aspect of social identity in workplace interaction, the analysis in
this paper demonstrates that people also discursively manage and interpret
complex gender identities through workplace talk. Moreover, we suggest
that our analysis provides a basis for recasting the concepts ‘feminine’ and
‘femininity’ in a more positive light, reclaiming the potential for women and
men to behave in feminine ways, and make constructive but unremarkable use
of conventionally feminine discourse strategies,‘even’at work.

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1. The content of this paper was first presented at IGALA 3, the 3rd Biennial
Conference of the International Gender and Language Association held at Cornell
University, June 5^7, 2004. We thank those who attended and contributed to the
discussion which has informed our revision. We thank those who allowed their
workplace interactions to be recorded, and other members of the Language in the
Workplace Project team who assisted with collecting and transcribing the data.We
also thank Meredith Marra and Emily Major for much-appreciated assistance with
editing and preparing this paper for publication. Finally we are indebted to the
editors and the three anonymous reviewers who provided detailed and valuable
feedback which has resulted in a much improved paper.
2. In this the concept of ‘femininity’ contrasts significantly with the concept of
‘masculinity’, which is regarded positively. As Kiesling (2004: 230) points out
‘studying masculinity allows the discussion of idealizations of manhood that no
man may actually fulfill’.
3. Mills (2003:186^188) describes changes in feminist analyses of femininity over the
last decade, and especially the ironisation of femininity which has been the focus
of work by Liladhar (2001). The concept of ironising a ‘feminine’ performance is
explored below. See also Clift (1999).
4. This approach is endorsed by a number of other analysts, for example, West and
Fenstermaker (1995), Mart|¤ n Rojo (1998), Stokoe and Weatherall (2002), Stokoe
and Smithson (2002), Kitzinger (2002).
5. This point is more fully explored in Holmes and Meyerhoff (2003), Holmes and
Stubbe (2003a), and Holmes (in press).
6. This example is discussed in more detail in the context of an analysis of leadership
strategies in Holmes, Schnurr, Chiles and Chan (2003). Tina Chiles, in particular,
contributed to the analysis of this example.
7. See Appendix for transcription conventions.
8. We are not suggesting that indirectness should always be construed positively (or
directness negatively). There are obviously occasions when indirectness can
be unhelpful and counter-productive (see Holmes in press chapter 2). Such
assessments can only be made in context; they require attention to participants’
reactions, and often to the longer-term outcomes of an interaction insofar as
these can be derived from the ethnographic detail collected in workplaces where
we recorded.
9. This example is also discussed in Holmes and Marra (2004: 388), a paper which
focuses on the range of linguistic and discursive strategies which may instantiate
Fletcher’s (1999) concept of ‘relational practice’.
10. See Holmes and Marra (2002a) for a fuller description and exemplification, and
Baxter (2003: 145) for a description of a very similar community of practice in the
British context.
11. This example is used to illustrate a different point in Holmes (2005: 53).
12. Tew (2002: 78ff) discussing the work of Cixous and Kristeva, notes the importance
they attach to identifying elements of ‘‘‘a different voice’’ . . . in the ordinary every-
day discourses of women and other subordinated social groups’, as one means of
starting to disrupt the hegemony of ‘phallocentric codes and rules’ (2002: 81^82).
Parody constitutes one such element.
13. This example is also discussed in Schnurr (forthcoming) and in Holmes and Schnurr
(2005) where it is used to illustrate the way Jill uses humour in the workplace.

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14. See Clift (1999: 543) on self-deprecating irony, and also on‘the affiliative qualities of
irony’. See also Johnstone (2003: 204^205) who describes how being southern
and sounding southern as resources for someTexan women, can be used sometimes
‘for very specific fleeting purposes (such as selling a business service to a man who
wants you to flirt)’.

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yes Underlining indicates emphatic stress
[laughs]:: Paralinguistic features in square brackets, colons indicate
þ Pause of up to one second
(3) Pause of specified number of seconds
. . ./. . . . . .\ . . . Simultaneous speech
. . ./. . . . . .\ . . .
(hello) Transcriber’s best guess at an unclear utterance
? Rising or question intonation
- Incomplete or cut-off utterance
... ... Section of transcript omitted
¼ Speaker’s turn continues
[edit] Editorial comments italicized in square brackets
All names used in examples are pseudonyms.

Address correspondence to:

Janet Holmes
School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Victoria University of Wellington
P O Box 600
New Zealand

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