Leadership language of Middle Eastern women Using feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis to study women leaders in Bahrain

Haleema Al A'ali


This chapter gives a comprehensive account of feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis (FPDA) as a method of linguistic enquiry, and explains the reasons behind using FPDA in my research of female leadership in Bahrain. It starts with an overview of the study and the context, followed by a review of the basic principles of FPDA and how they were applied to a selected case study of leadership language of a senior engineer in a Bahraini company.

FPDA is a self-reflexive, multi-perspectival method of linguistic analysis with a deconstructionist approach to discourse and gender, developed by Baxter (2003) in her study of classroom discourse. It is based on the premise that speakers do not exist outside discourse, and that ideas, concepts, identities, relationships, and so on are in constant flux and their meaning is constantly changing; therefore, any FPDA analysis deconstructs a text through offering in-depth multiple interpretations of it (Baxter 2003). With an eye on epistemological enquiry and roots in the works of Bakhtin (1981), Derrida (1987), Foucault (1980), and others (e.g. Walkerdine 1998; Weedon 1997), FPDA is concerned with studying intertextu- alised discourses and the interplay between power, knowledge, subjectivity, and discourses in any given context. Foucault defines discourses as 'practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’ (1972: 49). Discourses are always interwoven and intei-texu- alised in the sense that every discourse can have traces of one or more different discourses. In any given speech event, speakers are constantly shifting their subject positions between powerfulness and powerlessness. Studying these critical moments in interactions and exposing dominant discourses in the context, especially as they relate to gender, is the goal of any FPDA research, and it is precisely the goal of my research on female leadership in Bahrain.

The case study in this chapter is of an exploratory nature and it examines the linguistic practices senior women employ while 'doing' leadership in the context of corporate meetings in one of the largest, most prominent corporations in Bahrain. In line with FPDA, I adopt a social constructionist perspective which perceives workplace interactions as social practices in action (Holmes and Marra 2004). Within this framework, gender and leadership are similarly regarded as social constructs. Butler’s (1990) view of gender as ‘performative’ is also central here where individuals are thought to ‘do’ or ‘perform’ being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ by displaying language and behaviour which conform to/resist the ideal or perfect model perpetuated by the dominant 'gendered discourses’ in a particular organisation or community of practice. According to Sunderland (2004: 6), gendered discourses are ‘ways of seeing the world’ through a gendered lens. Various dominant gendered discourses are identified in the research literature. Drawing on Walsh (2001), Mullany (2007: 35) argues that there are persistent ‘hegemonic discourses’ of masculinity and femininity that are embedded in the discursive practices of any community. An example of such discourses is the discourse of gender differentiation, a masculinist hegemonic discourse through which differences between men and women in society are emphasised (Sunderland 2004).

Along the same line and based on the the social constructionist framework, leadership is also perceived as ‘performed’ through language. When interacting with colleagues and subordinates, leaders use language to perform, construct, and negotiate leadership. Holmes (2006) posits that men and women leaders select from a repertoire of conventionally masculine and conventionally feminine linguistic strategies to enact power and authority. Conventionally masculine strategies (such as use of aggressive and competitive language, controlling of the topic, interrupting, and issuing direct unmitigated orders, assertive statements, bald on-record humour, and so on) correlate with a transactional style of leadership which places more emphasis on solving problems and achieving work-related tasks. On the other hand, conventionally feminine linguistic strategies (such as issuing indirect mitigated orders, sharing power and authority, listening, giving compliments, using collaborative language, and so on) correlates with a relational style of leadership which prioritises fostering workplace relationships. Marra, Schnurr, and Holmes (2006) further note that effective leaders, regardless of their biological sex, are linguistic experts who are skilled at deploying a range of strategies to achieve the various goals of leadership. In this research I use the term ‘practices' rather than ‘strategies' or ‘styles' because it is more compatible with the poststructuralist view of language as a social practice.

Feminist research in the West has shown wide evidence of the ‘double bind’ (see also Appleby, this volume) where women leaders are viewed as incompetent and are condemned for their choice of either type of linguistic practices: they are deemed ‘unfeminine’ if they use traditionally masculine language, or ‘unprofessional’ if they use traditionally feminine language (Alvesson and Billing 1997; Brewis 2001). I believe that the validity of these findings should be questioned when applied to the Arab Middle Eastern context. Middle Eastern workplaces are significantly different from Western models. Weir (2003: 10) argues that ‘the very texture and processes of management in this region remained different from their Western models'. Therefore, the case study in this chapter will contribute to the growing body of research that focuses on the regional context.

What's more. Middle Eastern women’s experience in the public sphere is relatively new compared to their Western counterparts, hence there is a noticeable lack in role models for women aspiring to reach higher management and leadership positions. The case study offers models of good practice in Middle Eastern women’s leadership, by acquiring an insider’s knowledge of context and a deeper understanding of the women leaders’ backgrounds, intentions, agendas, and the linguistic practices they use to achieve their goals. For this, FPDA, alongside other qualitative methods, is utilised to give a multidimensional and multi- perspectival analysis of the data.

Backround and methodology of the study

Bahrain is an Arab Middle Eastern country and a leading example of women’s empowerment in the region (Gharaibeh 2011; World Economic Forum 2017). The country has been experiencing growth and diversification in the economy and some shifts in the political scenery. These changes, accompanied with the government's grand plan towards the inclusion of women in the public sphere of politics and the workplace, have resulted in a shift in society in relation to gender ideologies and gender roles (Metcalfe 2007). The gender system in the region is primarily shaped by Islamic principles and long-standing Arab cultural values. Traditional Arab societies are patriarchal; gender and age are determinant factors for the amount of power an individual enjoys in the community; the most powerful members are men and elders (Sabbagh 2005). The traditional gender system in Islam is grounded on the principle of biological difference between men and women. According to this principle, men and women should be assigned different but complementary roles, rights, and responsibilities in society (Metcalfe 2011; Muhdina 2017). In traditional Arab-Islamic societies, Islamic and Arabic values permeate all aspects of the private and public spheres; women are typically associated with the private sphere and men with the public (El-Rahmony 2002). This is reflected in the segregation between men and women's jobs in the workplace; until recently, female employment in the region had been clustered in traditionally 'feminine'jobs such as teaching, nursing, and other care-taking professions, which were perceived to be in alignment with their 'maternal nature' (Metcalfe 2007). Metcalfe (2011: 133) further argues that while governments are making tremendous efforts to promote women in the public spheres of politics and the workplace, it is still in the context of the 'Islamic gender regime’. Equally, management and gender studies in the Middle East (e.g. Ozbilgin and Healy 2003) reveal that even when women 'shatter the glass ceiling' and become leaders and managers, they are often 'constituted along patriarchal lines with women’s role as Mother emphasised' (Metcalfe 2007: 58).

Nowadays Bahraini women’s work is no longer restricted to cextain fields nor is it viewed as marked or unnecessary; on the contrary, women are encouraged to enter the workforce and are given the opportunities to excel and reach leadership positions. To empower Bahraini women in the workplace, the government (represented by the Supreme Council of Women and led by Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the King’s wife) has been supporting and monitoring women’s progress in all public and private companies. Most recently, numerous Arab and Bahraini business women have been featured in Forbes magazines as top influences in the region and in the world. According to Forbes Middle East (2017), women in the Arab world are finally 'breaking the glass ceiling’, especially in the banking sector. Forbes’ list for the most powerful Arab women includes 15 Bahraini women who made significant contributions locally and internationally in different fields, mainly politics, business, and management; they are ministers, business leaders, and influences of all types. With the recent dramatic changes in the region, I consider that there is a dire need for research that explores in depth the repertoire of leadership language practices available for senior women in the region, and also to present examples of effective leadership that may differ from the western models.

Feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis (FPDA)

FPDA is primarily interested in studying the interplay of discourses and exposing power relations in any given context. It doesn’t pursue a political agenda or a theoretical mission.

Rather, it supports social transformations in small-scale, localised contexts (Baxter and Al A’ali 2016) Moreover, FPDA views gender as a ‘site of struggle’, therefore, FPDA research always has a specific feminist focus. It supposes that women can be both momentarily powerful and controlling or powerless and marginalised in the same interaction or event. Herein lies the goal of my research. My study is not seeking emancipation for women in the workplace nor is it interested in solely studying interactional patterns in conversations. Rather it seeks to reveal the diversity and complexity of women’s positioning in Middle Eastern workplaces. Typically, Middle Eastern women are viewed and portrayed as victims, powerless and marginalised in Western research and media (Abu-Lughod 2002; Qutub 2013). As a linguist and as a Middle Eastern woman, I am aware of this narrative, yet I also realise that this is a rather naive and simplified view of a widely diversified and constantly changing demographic. I opted for FPDA in order to contest this view and shed light on the complex and competing aspects unique to the Middle Eastern context. Along the same lines, rather than assuming that women are positioned powerlessly within patriarchal discourses, I intend to show that women in my study can indeed be more powerful than their male counterparts and that there are many ways in which positions of power can be achieved, however momentary.

FPDA analysis is executed on micro and macro levels, and it has many other dimensions. These are presented next.

FPDA as a method of analysis

Any textual analysis using FPDA should take into account the following elements, dimensions, and processes (Baxter 2003):

• The synchronic-diachronic dimensions:

FPDA analysis requires a synchronic ‘detailed micro-analysis of stretches of text’ (Baxter 2008:251), which involves identifying critical moments in conversations where a power shift may occur. This is quite different from the diachronic dimension which usually requires the use of ethnographic methods to observe and study the change in the linguistic practices of members of a certain community over a longer period of time. Owing to the limited access I was granted to the company, I was unfortunately unable to achieve the diachronic dimension in this study.

• Micro-macro levels of analysis (denotative-connotative analysis):

Analysis using FPDA is executed on two levels, micro and macro. Starting at the micro-linguistic level, the researcher identifies the significant moments in the interaction where speakers shift subject positions. This is based on the premise that in any speech event, speakers constantly shift their positioning between powerfulness and powerlessness. These positions are made available by the competing discourses in the context. Therefore, at the macro-discoursal level, the researcher looks for evidence of the prevailing, competing discourses and explains the shifts in power through examining the interplay between these discourses.

Therefore, during the process of data analysis, the researcher utilises tools from discourse analysis methods (for instance, conversational analysis or interactional linguistics) necessary to conduct a descriptive non-evaluative micro-analysis on the data; this is referred to as the denotative analysis, which also forms the basis for the connotative macro-discursive reading of the text. A number of important processes take place in the connotative analysis such as identifying key discourses, analysing speakers’ positioning, and examining the process of negotiating power and the interplay between the competing and intertextualised discourses in the context.

• Intertextuality and inter-discursivity:

FPDA considers that discourses are always interwoven, and analyses the ways in which every discourse contains traces of other discourses. For instance, a discourse of gender differentiation can also be interwoven with and work alongside other discourses to enhance the positioning of a certain individual in an interaction, or it can be contested or undermined by another discourse in the context (see analysis).

• Self-reflexivity:

One of the most crucial aspects of the use of FPDA is researchers’ commitment to being self-reflexive, constantly revaluating their position and questioning their own values and assumptions and how these may affect the process of analysis.

In the following section I present the case study along with example extracts from the meeting and interview data and their FPDA analysis.

Hanan's case study

The study is set in a large company in Bahrain (Bahrainco, a pseudonym), known for its traditionally masculine environment due to its history and the nature of its business. The participant of the study is a woman who had recently been promoted to a managerial position after climbing the professional ladder for over 20 years. Hanan is a senior support engineer in the engineering division who has spent her entire career experience in Bahrainco. Despite the traditionally masculinised nature of the department where men are exceedingly higher in number and career oppoxtunities, Hanan has managed to receive recognition for her hard work and has been entrusted to lead important and critical national projects.

The study primarily sought to examine the leadership language practices that Bahraini senior women use with colleagues and subordinates within the context of corporate meetings in addition to the significant interacting discourses at play in the context and how they shape the leadership and language practices of the senior women.

For the purpose of data collection, multiple qualitative methods were utilised: attending and recording corporate meetings, interviewing Hanan and some of her colleagues and subordinates who attended the meetings, and shadowing her outside the meetings, observing her, taking notes, and listening to the small talk and casual conversations in and outside the office (for instance in the cafeteria or in the parking lot).

Around the time of the data collection, Hanan was leading a team of engineers (all males) in a nationwide project of a critical nature. The circumstances of the meeting were peculiar; the language in the meeting was full of jargon which presented a challenge to my analysis. Besides this, I accompanied her to the meeting which was scheduled at noon in a cabin simated in a gas field in the middle of the desert. Upon entering the cabin, I felt awkward and self-conscious because we were the only women in the cabin. Hanan’s body language showed confidence. She greeted everyone with a smile and even a little bit of banter; and she kept the small-talk short. Everyone seemed to be engaged despite her characteristically low-pitched voice. In a later interview with Hanan, she informed me that it took her a while and a great deal of courage to overcome this feeling of intimidation to always be the only woman in the meetings and field sites. Even more, it took a great amount of effoxt for her to be taken seriously.

This is one of a series of meetings Hanan has had with her team members for the purpose of following up implementation and work progress, and solving any arising problems along the way. She heads a team of three engineers, none of whom is her direct subordinate: Ameer is a senior engineer in Bahrainco; he is around ten years younger than Hanan, hence less experienced. Raj and Vivek are junior engineers who work at an Indian contracting company; they are in Bahrain for a short period of time to work on this particular project for Bahrainco. During the course of the meeting, Hanan and her team members engage in the joint construction of talk, where Hanan goes through a check-list of action plan and Amir, Raj, and Vivek cooperate and alternate in answering her inquiries and updating her with the work progress.

Denotative analysis

Hanan starts the meeting unofficially during the process of seating by explaining the agenda of the meeting. In the first extract, the team are discussing the implementation of a new system (ATG1), most specifically, the message that should be displayed to operators. Hanan thinks that providing the term (ATG1) only is likely to stir some confusion among the operators because they are not familiar with the system. Transcription conventions are provided at the end of the chapter.

Extract 1: ‘Even I will forget’

(H=Hanan; Chair; A=Amir; engineer, male; R = Raj; contractor engineer, male; V=

Vivek; contractor engineer, male; ATG=operation system; K40=radar detector; FAC=

field advanced controllers) [1] [2]

  • 22 V: [no we will (—) we will educate the operator
  • 23 that (.) er it is in the model (.) already it has been (-) under the
  • 24 FAC FAC the controller (.) you have to see that alarm (.) based on that
  • 25 controllers (.) yeah otherwise we will educate the er operators
  • 26 H: emm
  • 27 (After 55 lines of a discussion between Amir, Raj and Vivek about the best
  • 28 way to implement the new system without confusing the operators)
  • 29 H: well er (0.3) (looking at some papers) ATG1 because I am a system
  • 30 person (.) I understand [ATG means something to me=
  • 31 R: [yeah =meaningful
  • 32 H: meaningful (.) but as long as we will get an alarm (3)
  • 33 R: but we can educate them (.) it’s very
  • 34 H: you forget (.) even me after a while I will forget (.) ATG1 (.) it is
  • 35 connected to controllers or to BMS (.) I will forget (.) I [will forget
  • 36 A: [you have to
  • 37 go back to the drawings=
  • 38 R: =yeah exactly (.) so it’s better to have ATG1
  • 39 and AC00

The extract begins with Raj explaining an earlier suggestion he made about providing a simple description of the new ATG system to the operators. Hanan seems surprised and asks for further clarification using a string of statements with a rising intonation: ‘you think operator will understand ATG11’ (line 9), which indicates her initial disapproval of the idea. Amir takes Hanan’s side and issues a criticism using a negative evaluative adjective in line 10: ‘It’s confusing’. Just when Vivek takes the floor to express his compliance to act upon Amir’s criticism - ‘that’s ok we will’ (line 11) - Hanan interrupts him, this time with a rather mitigated monologue in which she weighs the pros and cons of Raj’s suggestion and builds up her argument, stating at first that ‘it’s it’s good as a maintenance’ (lines 12-13) followed by more explanation of why it is a favourable idea, and that despite her earlier concerns, she is considering this suggestion. To wrap up her argument, she uses multiple hedging devices: ’maybe’, T think', T guess’ to show that she understands Raj’s point of view and partially agrees with him. Finally, she uses the inclusive pronoun 4ve’ and deontic modal verb ‘need’ to draw on a conclusive decision - ‘we need the word ATG’ (line 16); her intention is perhaps to strengthen the sense of collective work and shared responsibility. Amir immediately seconds Hanan’s decision by echoing her statement ‘we need it’. This time, Raj shows his direct compliance and readiness to follow Hanan’s orders by issuing a question: ‘we get iff’ (line 19). Here, Amir takes the floor and responds to Raj with an affirmative 'yes’ followed by an order to cany on the implementation process. Vivek contributes with more explanation of the particulars of the operation from his point of view (lines 22-25). During this exchange, Hanan stays silent except for the minimal response ‘hmm’ to indicate that she has been attentively following the conversation.

The discussion of the implementation of the process between Amir, Raj, and Vivek takes a few more minutes, and Hanan, who has been attentive the whole time, finally takes the floor using the discourse marker ‘well’ to establish her turn (line 29). She examines the papers in her hand for few seconds, perhaps to gather her thoughts or to prepare the team for her counter argument. She revisits her earlier concern over the ATG message being incomprehensible to the operators, this time by using a more personal approach and referring to her experience and expertise in ‘systems’; in fact, she defines herself as 'a system person’ (lines 29-30), identifying with a community of engineers and disassociating herself from operators who have less expert knowledge: 'I am a system person I understand ATG means something to me’ (line 30). Raj uses the minimal response ‘yeah’ and the paraphrase ‘meaningful’ to show his total agreement with Hanan, who then echoes him with the word ‘meaningful’, and continues her turn (line 32). When she stops, Raj allows a few seconds to pass by before he makes further suggestions, also using the inclusive ‘we’ to stress the joint endeavour: ‘we can educate them’ (line 33). Before he carries on with his proposition, Hanan interrupts and disagrees with the words: ‘you forget’, and ‘even me after a while I will forget’. Here, Hanan seems to be generalising about people’s abilities to remember difficult acronyms. She is also revealing her own weakness here in order to soften the force of her disagreement with Raj. She clarifies her point further and finally repeats ‘I will forget’ twice for the purpose of emphasis (line 35). Amir uses a cooperative overlap to build on her argument, adding more reasons why he is not in favour of Raj’s suggestion. Faced with such opposition, Raj immediately shows his total compliance - ‘yeah exactly’ - and modifies his proposition.

The next extract takes place towards the end of the meeting; before wrapping up, Hanan stresses the importance of meeting the deadlines and working within the specific time frame; she criticises Raj and Vivek for lacking time management strategies.

Extract 2: ‘Your visa is valid until 29’

(H=Hanan; Chair; A=Amir; engineer, male; R = Raj; contractor engineer, male; V=

Vivek; contractor engineer, male; HMI= Human machine interface)

  • 40 A: you have to do the description (.) for the controller and pop ups
  • 41 R: description (.) it’s both er finished up already
  • 42 H: everything will bet
  • 43 R: no no the er (.) ok (.) this er (.) no this I know I will complete it
  • 44 H: yeah but (.)£ tell me when (I mean) £
  • 45 (e>erybody is laughing)
  • 46 H: £ what's the time now£f
  • 47 (more laughter)
  • 48 H: I don’t want you to die [hehehehe
  • 49 V: [£(—)£
  • 50 R: [£ if this guy er this guy (says) today means
  • 51 till tomorrow 12 till tomorrow morning£
  • 52 H: tomorrow (-) till tomorrow morning 6 am (.) and you will come tomorrow
  • 53 morning (.)
  • 54 V: HMII can er work on (.) job design I can work on
  • 55 R: no actually (.) once we complete this er dxyer testing and the fixing
  • 56 of the small er that (.) HiMI things (—) and myself and Amir (.) we’re
  • 57 concentrating on the 39 and those coimnunication and testing so [I thi-
  • 58 A: [we
  • 59 don’t need the N44 for testing IL (.) two dayst
  • 60 R: in fact (.) he was asking me if I will do the er 39 communication (-)
  • 61 but I told him you have (.) any work here [so
  • 62 H: [£you ha- there are other
  • 63 work [I haven’t spotted (.) your visa is valid until 29
  • 64 A: [hehehe
  • 65 V: yeah 29
  • 66 A: today is 22
  • 67 V: some er
  • 68 H: you have how many hours until 29|
  • 69 (Laughter from all)

The extract commences with Amir issuing a directive to Raj and Vivek about some implementation detail; for this purpose he uses a deontic modal expression ‘you have to do the description’ (line 40). Raj echoes Amir ‘description’ and states, with some hesitation (‘er’), that it was finished. Hanan senses his reluctance and issues a checking statement - ‘everything will bef (line 42) - to which Raj, taken aback by her intuitive remark, responds with a number of hedges (‘no no the er (.) ok (.) this er’) and a promise to complete the task. Hanan doesn’t seem to be fully convinced of the sincerity of Raj’s promise and continues to put him ‘on the spot’ by issuing a series of exaggerated questions, mitigated by a wide smile on her face: ‘yeah but (.) tell me when' (line 44), and ‘what’s the time now' (line 46). With everyone laughing (either out of embarrassment or because they are amused), the banter carries on as Hanan ironically states that she doesn’t want Raj to die out of hard work, apparently to imply that he is in fact a lazy procrastinator. Raj instantly tries to deflect the blame by referring to Vivek’s lack of time management strategies (lines 50-51), yet Hanan ignores his defence and keeps the exaggerated questioning going (‘tomorrow (-) till tomorrow morning 6 am (.) and you will come tomorrow morning’ (lines 52-53)). While Vivek responds to Hanan’s questioning with a number of promises about finishing some tasks (line 54), Raj's strategy is less direct as he positions Amir as a partner or an accomplice when he mentions other tasks that they are working on together: ‘and myself and Amir (.) we’re concentrating on the 39 and those communication and testing so’ (line 57). Anir interrupts him to show his instant resistance to this positioning and challenges him in lines 58-59 4ve don’t need the N44 for testing IL (.) two days)’.

As Raj continues his attempts to deflect the blame from himself, he accidently reveals other unfinished tasks that were not known to Hanan and Anir. Hanan’s first response is to smile and interrupt his turn to show her surprise at this new revelation ‘£you ha- there are other work I haven’t spotted’ (lines 62-63). Hanan starts a banter sequence about Raj and Vivek’s visa expiration date - ‘your visa is valid until 29’, ‘you have how many hours until 29f (lines 63 and 68 respectively). Amir cooperates with Hanan to co-constiuct the banter by laughing throughout the sequence and issuing a supportive comment, ‘today is 22’ (line 66). All participants in the meeting laugh at Hanan's humorous remarks even though they clearly realise that it is embedded with criticism.

The next extract is taken from the inteiview data. Hanan talks about gender equality in Bahrainco.

Extract 3: ‘This is your culture here’

  • 70 H I mean up to (.) last year for example (.) they wouldn’t really recruit
  • 71 er females for engineers they don't trust them as er engineers (.)
  • 72 especially in engineering er (.) so many graduates (.) from (.) Bahrain
  • 73 University from outside univ- sure they apply (.) I mean and they are
  • 74 very good and distinguished (.) but you hardly see I mean them recruit
  • 75 (.) anyone (—) we have I mean myself I (.) initially I didn’t think
  • 76 (.) of that (0.1) and then er (.) believe it or not I mean one of the
  • 77 Westerners he brought that up to me (.) he said I mean err (.) he spoke
  • 78 to all those Bahrainis who are higher than him (0.1) and he said ex-
  • 79 (0.1) they don’t er because you you are a female (.) they don’t (0.1) I
  • 80 mean they put some (0.1) (cap) on your er (0.1) advancement (.) this is
  • 81 they say this is your culture here (.) °and errr° I cannot change it

Hanan explains that she believes the reason behind the lack of women in the engineering department lies within the discriminatory recruitment process. She starts by giving examples of actual events which are indicative of such discriminatory practices: ‘last year for example (.) they wouldn't...’ (line 70). As she narrates a recent incident where professional women engineers were denied the chance to compete for jobs in Bahrainco, she refers to the management and decision-makers in the company vaguely as ‘they’. This is perhaps to hedge her further accusations of Bahrainco’s decision-makers as sexist: “they don’t trust them as er engineers' (line 71). Hanan emphasises that such discrimination is especially practiced in the engineering department and gives more examples to confirm her claim that the engineering profession is being gendered and as a result, women are being excluded (lines 72-75).

In line 75, Hanan shifts to the inclusive pronoun 4ve’ then the singular pronoun T to refer to her personal experience with the ‘glass ceiling’ as a woman engineer in the male- dominated company of Bahrainco. She claims that she was oblivious to the actual reasons behind deferring her promotions despite her expertise and her long years of experience, and that her superior, a Western expat is the one who brought it to her attention (lines 77-81). According to him, despite his efforts, it is the wider Bahraini patriarchal culture that is behind the gendered inequality and 'glass ceiling' in the company.

Despite the existence of the glass ceiling, Hanan is still considered an expert and is trusted to lead national wide projects. In an interview with Amir, he repeatedly refers to Hanan's expertise and length of experience as the reason behind her seniority. In the next extract, he is asked about her leadership style.

Extract 4: ‘She has experience more than me’

  • 82 A and that’s natural (.) she has experience more than me (.) for example
  • 83 I do it some- in a way (.) she says ok (.) you have done it in a right
  • 84 way but it’s better to do it like this (0.2) she’s she’s a senior
  • 85 engineer I am an engineer so (.) 11 was working on a differen- not
  • 86 different department I was looking after a different system (.) I
  • 87 recently joined this err (.) supporting this system for the past two
  • 88 three months so (.) I am little bit new in this field (.) err she was
  • 89 looking after this for for I donno (.) few years

Amir refers to any disagreement between himself and Hanan as 'natural', given the fact that she is more experienced than he is (line 82). The specific example he gives does not indicate any type of argument though, just a reference to the effect of his lack of experience in some aspects and the indirect, face-saving way she deals with such mistakes. Then he immediately shifts to focus on Hanan’s and his different areas of expertise: T was working on a different department I was looking after a different system’ (lines 85-86). He emphasises his recent involvement in the project by using the adverbials of time ‘recently’ and ‘three months ago’ (lines 87 and 88 respectively).

According to the principles of FPDA, the denotative analysis of the data is the basis for the macro-discoursal analysis; in the next section this will be reviewed.

Connotative analysis

There are many discourses at play in the context. The first dominant discourse that I have identified is the discourse of masculinisation, which according to Baxter (2003), normalises conventionally masculine leadership practices such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, assertiveness, boldness, dominance, and so on. This discourse is manifested in a number of ways. As analysed above, Hanan often resorts to such linguistic strategies to enact power and authority and to get the job done even if it is at the expense of her team members’ ‘face needs’ (Brown and Levinson 1987). Hanan and Amir’s co-construction of the on-record banter in Extract 2 is an exemplar of the normalcy of this behaviour. The extracts provided in this review and many other parts of the meeting and interviews indicate the critical and task-oriented nature of work in the engineering department, which, according to Hanan, requires her and her team members to be fairly formal and direct with each other, and most of all, prioritise task accomplishment over other relational goals. Baxter (2010) notes that in such male-dominated workplaces, display of traditionally feminine language and practices may be viewed as a weakness in character and even a waste of valuable company time. Accordingly, Hanan, may feel pressurised to acquire the mainstream traditionally masculine language in order to be recognised and appreciated.

While Hanan is potentially disempowered by the gendered discourse of ‘masculinisation’ which, according to the inteiview data, may have worked against her work progression, there are a number of competing discourses which can be detected in the context that work to empower her such as the discourses of‘historical legacy’ and ‘expertise’.

According to Baxter (2003), historical legacy favours employees with seniority who have worked in the company for a considerable amount of time and have built long-standing relationships and connections. Hanan is one of the employees who have spent their entire career in the same department; over 20 years in Bahrainco has awarded her with a sense of familiarity with the company and its practices and has granted her a certain amount of power and privilege. This is evident in the interview with Amir, her male subordinate, where he referred multiple times to her years of experience (Extract 4). It can further be indexed through the length of time Hanan spent in the company and also the amount of confidence she carries as she walks in the all-male cabin and how she greets everyone with a sense of familiarity. It is also reflected linguistically through her use of strategies with her team members which index confidence and self-assurance such as direct unmitigated language (e.g. ‘you have to do the description’ (line 40)) and contested humour (e.g. ‘yeah but (.) tell me when’ (line 44), and ‘what’s the time now’ (line 46)).

Another discourse which is manifested throughout the data is the discourse of expertise. Working and progressing through the ranks in the same department for over 20 years has given Hanan a great amount of experience and expertise, therefore, she is entrusted to lead nationwide projects despite her middle-management status. In the meeting. Hanan’s expertise is evident; when she speaks about processes, her team members listen attentively (lines 11-16); also in Extract 2, she refers to herself as ‘a system person’ who knows all about specialised technical concepts and processes such as ATG1. In Extract 4, Amir admits that Hanan has more expertise than he does - T am little bit new in this field (.) err she was looking after this for for I donno (.) few years’ (lines 88-89).

The dominant corporate discourses detected in the context compete at times and interact at others to variably position Hanan between powerfulness and powerlessness. The discourse of masculinisation dominates the engineering department, overpowering the other discourses most of the time. This is evident in the all-male environment and other discriminatory practices against Hanan and other female employees as shown in Extract 3 (for example, despite her expertise and her long working experience, she is yet to be promoted to a manager). However, in the meeting itself, Hanan is shown to use conventionally masculine language (e.g. direct unmitigated orders, banter, etc.) especially in critical moments such as the possibility of missing deadlines or delay in accomplishing tasks, perhaps to lessen the limitation imposed by the discourse of masculinisation on her as a female.

On the other hand, while the discourse of masculinisation seems to have hindered Hanan's career progression, it is her long experience and expertise that distinguish her from her male counterparts and position her powerfully. When discourses of historical legacy and expertise interact, the discourse of masculinisation is undermined and Hanan is entrusted to handle critical projects, and she feels confident enough to do so using linguistic strategies that index power and authority. There are critical moments in the meeting where Hanan is positioned powerfully by the discourse of expertise; she refers to herself as a ‘system person’, uses technical jargon throughout the meeting, and shows her apparent expertise as she evaluates and assesses her subordinates’ work.


Through this research study I hope to present examples of good practice in a context where women are new to power and authority. With the recent trend in the Middle East of women entering the workforce and occupying jobs that are traditionally associated with men, women in the region, and particularly in Bahr ain, are in need of role models. Therefore, it is necessary to give voice to senior women who have achieved a certain degree of success and progressed to senior roles in workplaces that have a prevailing traditionally masculine culture. FPDA seemed an obvious choice because it aims to bring to the surface the silenced voices, expose the hidden aspects of the context, and bring about social transformations. Women in the Middle East are still fighting a battle their Western counterparts fought decades ago. They are still struggling to prove that they are eligible to work alongside men in certain professions. In this case study, women are being overshadowed in the engineering department, as Hanan puts it ‘because you you are a female (.) they don’t (0.1) I mean they put some (0.1) (cap) on your er (0.1) advancement’. Hers is the minority voice which needs to be heard so that change can take place and the situation can be corrected in a way that is congruent with the social and culmral peculiarities of the society.

Future directions

FPDA’s reflexive approach to data enhances the quality of today’s research and should be considered as a main method when researching language and gender. It can be used alongside other methods at the micro and macro levels; in fact, it transcends the polarity of micro and macro analysis and focuses on providing a thick description of the data that would ultimately enhances the understanding of the context. Hence, I believe FPDA should be utilised in a wider range of geographical contexts in order to produce fine-grained analysis of unique localised settings where generalisations are not applicable and change is essential. While this study tackled leadership and women in Bahrain, research is needed to explore Middle Eastern women of other countries in the region, given the vast economic, social, and ideological differences between the countries under the umbrella of the Middle East.

Transcription conventions

This transcription key is mainly based on the “Jefferson system”1 1, 2 Line numbering

А, В, C Name of speaker (anonymised and abbreviated)

Word Translated talk

  • ((word)) Transcriber's comment on what happened
  • (word) Transcriber's guess at what have been said
  • () Unclear talk
  • (-) Omitted talk
  • (.) Noticeable pause
  • (0.2), (2.5) Example of timed pauses
  • (word, word], Rising and falling of intonation

WORD High volume, loud

“word0 Low volume, attenuated speech


[word Overlapping talk


=word Latching, simultaneous talk

wor- Sharp cut-off

Wo:rd Prolonged sound

£word£ Smiley voice, humorous tone


1 Jefferson, G. (2004) ‘Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction’, in Lerner, G. (ed) Conversation analysis: studies from the first generation. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 13-31.

Further reading

Baxter, J. and Al A’ali, H. (2016) Speaking as Women Leaders: Meetings in Middle Eastern and Western Contexts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave McMillan.

This book examines the leadership language of six senior business women from the UK and Bahrain; it challenges the preconceived notions about the discrepancies in the challenges faced by women in the West and the Middle East. The use of feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis (FPDA) has revealed that senior women in both cultural contexts are constrained, positioned, and influenced by similar discourses such as ‘masculinisation" and ‘hierarchy and status’.

Mullany, L. (2007) Gendered Discourse in the Professional Workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan.

This bookuses sociolinguistic data to analyse workplace interactions taking place in two companies, and explores the underlying gendered discourses at play in the context and their role in perpetuating discriminatory practices.

Metcalfe, B. (2011) ‘Women, empowerment and development in Arab Gulf States: A critical appraisal of governance, culture and national human resource development (HRD) frameworks’. Human Resource Development International, 14(2), pp. 131-148.

The article addresses gender issues and human resource development (HRD) in three Arab Gulf States (Bahrain, UAE, and Saudia Arabia), particularly the social and cultural factors that shape women in the region and their livelihood. It assesses the current HRD frameworks and calls for tailored and localised strategies based on a better understanding of the social and cultural context in order to support and empower women and help them develop their own version of Islamic feminism.

Related topics

Poststructuralist research on language, gender, and sexuality; feminist poststructuralism - discourse, subjectivity, the body, and power; identity construction in gendered workplaces; leadership and humour at work: using interactional sociolinguistics to explore the role of gender; language, gender, and the discursive production of women as leaders.


Abu-Lughod, L. (2002) ‘Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others’. American Anthropologist, 104, pp. 783-790.

Alvesson, M. and Billing, Y. (1997) Understanding Gender and Organisations. London: SAGE.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Holquist, M. and translated by Emerson, C. and Holquist, M. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

Baxter, J. (2003) Positioning Gender in Discourse: A Feminist Methodology’. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Baxter, J. (2008) ‘Feminist Post-structuralist discourse analysis: a new theoretical and methodological approach?’. In: Harrington, K., Litosseliti, L., Sauntson, H., and Sunderland, J., eds. Gender and Language Research Methodologies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 243-255.

Baxter, J. (2010) The Language of Female Leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Baxter, J. and A1 A’ali, H. (2016) Speaking as Women Leaders: Meetings in Middle Eastern and Western Contexts. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave McMillan.

Brewis, J. (2001) ‘Telling it like it is? Gender, language and organizational theory’. In: Linstead, R. W., ed. The Language of Organization. London: SAGE, pp. 283-309.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universal in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Derrida, J. (1987) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

El-Rahmony, S. (2002) ‘Women in the Arab world: From role conflict to effective participation’. Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi (Arab Future), pp. 93-107.

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology’ of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power:Knowledge. Brighton: Harvester Press.

Forbes Middle East (2017) The Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen 2017. Available at: http:// www.forbesmiddleeast.com/en/list/top-100-powerful-arab-businesswomen-2017/ (Accessed: 23rd July 2017).

Gharaibeh, F. A. (2011) ‘Women’s empowerment in Bahrain’. Journal of International Women's Studies, 12(3), pp. 96-113.

Hohnes, J. (2006) Gendered Talk at Work. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hohnes, J. and Marra, M. (2004) ‘Relational practice in the workplace: Women’s talk or gendered discourse?’. Language in Society, 33, pp. 377-398.

Marra, M., Sclmurr, S., and Hohnes, J. (2006) ‘Effective leadership in New Zealand: Balancing gender and role’. In: Baxter, J., ed. Speaking Out: The Female Voice in Public Contexts. Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 240-260.

Metcalfe, B. (2007) ‘Gender and human resource management in the Middle East’. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 18(1), pp. 54-74.

Metcalfe, B. (2011) ‘Women, empowerment and development in Arab Gulf States: A critical appraisal of governance, culture and national human resource development (HRD) frameworks’. Human Resource Development International, 14(2), pp. 131-148.

Muhdina, D. (2017) ‘Gender equality perspective in Islam based on the Holy Quran’. Social Sciences, 12(12), pp. 2314-2320.

Mullany, L. (2007) Gendered Discourse in the Professional Workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan.

Ozbilgin, M. and Healy, G. (2003) ‘Don’t mention the war. Middle Eastern careers in context’. Career Development International, 8(7), pp. 325-327.

Qutub, A. (2013) ‘Harem girls and terrorist men: Media misrepresentations of Middle Eastern cultures’. Colloquy, 9, pp. 139-155.

Sabbagh, A. (2005) ‘The Arab States: enhancing women’s political participation’. In: Ballington, J. and Karam, A., eds. Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers Handbook, 2nd ed. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, pp. 52-72.

Sunderland, J. (2004) Gendered Discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Walkerdine, V. (1998) Counting Girls Out: Girls and Mathematics. London: Fainter Press.

Walsh, C. (2001) Gender and Discourse: Language and Power in Politics, the Church and Organisations. London: Longman.

Weedon, C. (1997) Feminist Practice and Post-Structuralist Theoiy, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Weir, D. (2003) ‘Human resource management in the Arab Middle East’. In: Lee, M., ed. HRD in a Complex World. London: Routledge.

World Economic Forum (2017) Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Available at: http://www3.wef orum.org/docsAVEF_GGGR_2017.pdf (Accessed: 27th June 2018).


Feminist poststructuralism: discourse, subjectivity, the body,

and power

  • [1] 2 R: yeah basically ATG1 (.) yeah the only controllers come in 3 particular ATG only (.) so (.) what we are describing here is (.) 4 it is ATG 1 and the corresponding loop controller (.) that is say 5 (,)ATG1 K40(.)ATG1[(-) 6 H: [(-) you mean this message will be displayed to 7 operators! 8 R: yes 9 H: you think operators will understand ATG1| 10 A: it is confusing
  • [2] V: that’s ok [we will 12 H: [but it is er in a way (.) it’s it’s good as a 13 maintenance er (.) when the maintenance guy come (.) he will interpret 14 it he will say yeah this is coming from ATG1 (.) so yes maybe the 15 message is not (.) cannot be fully interpreted by the operator (.) 16 eventually I think (.) we need the word ATG (.) I guess in the er 17 message (.) we need it= 18 A: = we need it 19 R: we get it! 20 A: yes in case that you say that all the the controllers are off then we 21 will display a message [say that ATG
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