Get Shut Down Often Enough & Eventually You'll Shut Up

According to the social scientists who study communication theory, language serves its creators (and those who belong to the same groups as its creators) better than it serves those in other groups who have to learn to use the language as best they can. This is the case because the experiences of the creators are named clearly in language, whereas the experiences of other groups are not. Due to their problems adapting to a language they did not create, people from other groups appear less articulate than those from groups like the creators. Sometimes these muted groups create their own language to compensate for their problems with the dominant group’s language. This is known as, “Muted Group Theory” (MGT).


Are women silent?

Or are are their voices simply not heard?

Some of us are members of a law firm culture with a long history. Others of us belong to law firm cultures that have recently found prominence.

Different firm cultures are coming into conflict more and more these days:

  • Mergers and acquisitions have become a central part of firm life, and they almost inevitably involve one firm adopting the culture of another in the process of integration.

  • Many of these mergers and acquisitions are taking place across national boundaries, as part of the process of globalization. This increases the chances that cultures will clash.

  • Firms are involved in a huge number of ventures, loose alliances, and outsourcing contracts that force them to work in close contact with different cultures.

  • Firms themselves are seeking to build a more diverse workforce, recruiting more women and minority groups. This too is increasing the chances of culture clashes within firms.

Let’s think about four communication theories that fall under “Culture and Diversity”: Face-Negotiation Theory, Communication Accommodation Theory, Muted Group Theory, and Feminist Standpoint Theory. These theories represent a cross-section of what it means to be a member of a cultural community and because each theory, in some way, provides some evidence of the expansiveness of culture. Each of these theories takes into consideration what happens when we communicate with people who come from different cultural backgrounds and with different cultural expectations.

Muted Group Theory Assertions

A woman is a member of a group whose power base does not allow her to express her voice, or even to always hear her own voice in her head. Often women have experiences that are not well expressed in their own language system—a language system that was devised primarily by well-to-do men to represent their own experiences. According to MGT, women (and others) are muted because their language often does not provide a good fit with their life experiences.

MGT focuses on the power to name experiences and explains that women trying to use man-made language to describe their experiences is somewhat like native English speakers learning to converse in Spanish. To do so, they have to go through an internal translation process, scanning the foreign vocabulary for the best word to express themselves. This process makes them hesitant and often inarticulate as they are unable to use the language fluently for their purposes. In the process, muted groups metaphorically lose their voice (Wood, 2013).

Cheris Kramarae (1981), the researcher who adapted MGT for the field of communication, observes:

“The language of a particular culture does not serve all its speakers equally, for not all speakers contribute in an equal fashion to its formulation. Women (and members of other subordinate groups) are not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, when and where they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group, men.”

Yet, it isn’t the case that all women are silenced and all men have a voice. MGT allows us to understand any group that is silenced by the “inadequacies” of their language. For instance, Kami Kosenko (2010) notes that MGT offers a heuristic explanation for how the transgender individuals in her study were “rendered mute by a biomedical discourse that fails to represent the transgender body or sexual experience.” Furthermore, muting may take place as a result of the unpopularity of the views that a person is trying to express.

Muted Group theorists criticize dominant groups and argue that hegemonic ideas often silence other ideas. MGT is a theory that examines power issues. As Cheris Kramarae (2005) observes, “people attached or assigned to subordinate groups may have a lot to say, but they tend to have relatively little power to say it.” Or if they do venture to speak, those in a greater power position may ignore, ridicule, or disrespect their contribution in a variety of ways. As Cheris Kramarae (2009) notes, muted groups “get in trouble” when they speak out in their own voices. Kramarae’s work on MGT led to insights about how the English language affects women’s communication behaviors. 

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Women & Other Minority Groups

“...people attached or assigned to subordinate groups may have a lot to say, but they tend to have relatively little power to say it.”

Survey Results Show Recent Exposure to MTG

According to a recent article in “Big Law Business,” Kimberly Robison of Bloomberg Law writes:

"More than 50 percent of law school students are women and some 45 percent of associates at law firms, too. But less than 20 percent of those women ever make partner, Roberta Liebenberg, who heads the American Bar Association’s Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, said Aug. 3 at an ABA panel during its annual meeting in Chicago. Liebenberg is a senior partner at Fine Kaplan and Black, Philadelphia.

Liebenberg and others announced the results of a new survey examining why those discrepancies exist. The final report will be out in September.

The results suggest that women 20 years out of law school are dissatisfied with their access to business development opportunities, salary, and access to mentors, among other things.

It highlights that women and men have very different experiences in the legal workplace."


Food for Thought

Thinking about women in business, or more precisely, in the law firm setting, how do you see Muted Group Theory playing out at your firm or at firms with which you might be familiar?

Don’t be shy, as this is not a unique phenomenon at any particular firm. It is a global one.