Although women’s representation has improved across the corporate pipeline, a report
from Lean In and McKinsey and Company identified a “broken rung” at the first step from associate to manager, since women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men. This indicates a disconnect between how women are perceived in the workplace and in positions of authority.
In their book Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, authors Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris explain the balance that women in the workplace must keep when communicating with others. A woman must be perceived as competent, confident and an effective leader, they explained in an interview. In order to achieve that perception, the goal is not to “act more like a man.” Instead, changing others’ perceptions requires understanding communication styles and understanding which qualities should and should not be emphasized.
A recent meeting for GHJ’s Women Empowerment Committee included a presentation about communication styles and how they can be adapted to portray competence, confidence and leadership.
COMPARING COMMUNICATION STYLES
Regarding communication, a study found women generally have an advantage over their male counterparts when it comes to listening, demonstrating empathy and reading body language. However, women are often perceived as overly emotional, not authoritative and meandering. Women can also be perceived as weak or passive when they are unnecessarily apologetic and when they discount their own ideas and achievements.
How can women counteract these perceived weaknesses? They can start with an awareness of communication styles. From there, the next step is making a conscious choice to tailor communication style to the specific situation to make the strongest impact on the audience.
SPEAK WITH AUTHORITY
Often, women use language that softens their message to avoid being perceived as aggressive or pushy. However, this same instinct can undermine the authority of their words. Here are a few examples:
- Sorry: Women tend to spend a lot more time apologizing than men, and this undermines their authority. Before using sorry, one should consider whether this is a situation that genuinely requires an apology or if it is being said to be overly polite.
- Thanks: While it is important to express gratitude when deserved, being overly polite when asking for something can come across as passive. Overusing “thanks” also diminishes its impact for when the situation genuinely calls for gratitude.
- Just, I think, Actually, But or Maybe: These words and phrases are qualifiers. They detract from the message before an opinion has been expressed. They also introduce ambiguity, which waters down the speaker’s authority and can create the perception that the person speaking does not know what they are doing.
Words are not the only way that communication can be weakened. Additional examples include:
- Emojis and emoticons: Excessive use can make the writer come across as overly emotional or not authoritative.
- Exclamation points: Excessive use of exclamation points can make the writer appear overly emotional.
One way to ensure that clear and effective communication is used is by reducing or removing any of the above from everyday communication.
SPEAK WITH INTENTION
There are a few ways to make a larger impact through communication.
Rethink how language is used. Rather than simply eliminating the qualifying language mentioned above, women in the workplace should make a conscious effort to adopt strong language that conveys a clear message.
Do not be afraid to interrupt. In meetings, women tend to speak less than men. This is because women tend to wait until they have the perfect answer to a question or problem, whereas men are less hesitant to speak, even if they do not have a complete solution to an issue.
Be bold. Women should not feel obligated to wait until they are invited to speak or let nerves prevent them from sharing a great idea. It is important to remember that a person sitting in the room has already earned their spot to be there.
- Confidence, or the perception of confidence, is a significant component of leadership presence.
- Confidence is reflected in the words and phrases used in daily communication.
- To communicate effectively, the goal is to emphasize authority without coming across as overly emotional.
- By eliminating unnecessary words, a person can strengthen their rhetoric. In turn, they create a stronger impression with their audience.
The point of this exercise is not to merely avoid certain words and phrases. Rather, it is about demonstrating that every person’s thoughts and opinions are valid and have a right to be shared. Small changes in word choices can pay off big dividends in how a speaker is perceived by others.
As companies adopt more initiatives for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, it is important to bridge the communication gaps that may arise.