In recent decades, women have risen to important positions in the workplace that once were almost exclusively held by men. However, men and women still use language in different ways at work. How can women use language more effectively in the workplace? First we’ll look at some examples of issues that may arise, and then we’ll see tips on improving workplace communication.
When compared to men in similar roles, women tend to be more polite and downplay their authority. When asking someone to carry out a task, for example, women often apologize, saying things like “I’m sorry, could you...,” even when the task is part of that person’s job description. Another word that women sometimes use to minimize the impact of requests is “just”: “I just want to check if...” “I just wanted to know whether...” “I just want to find out...”
When presenting their ideas, women often soften their opinion by using phrases like “I may be wrong, but...” or “I know this might be a stupid question.” Even when men are aware that they may be wrong, they tend not to admit it so frequently, and they avoid undermining their own opinion or expertise.
Not Highlighting Successes
When it comes to taking credit for their own achievements, women are usually more reluctant to do so than men. It’s much more common to hear a man talking proudly about his successes than his female colleague. Unfortunately, women’s modesty comes at a cost: when there are opportunities for advancement, they may not be considered. And it’s not because they are less competent: all too often, it’s simply because others aren’t aware of everything they have achieved and are capable of doing. Talking about your accomplishments is a form of personal marketing, and women typically don’t do it with the same intensity as their male counterparts for fear of being seen as conceited.
Women tend to use these language strategies because they don’t want to be in the spotlight, to offend others, or to seem arrogant. And there’s an explanation for that. According to a New York Times editorial written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her collaborator Adam Grant, “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.”
Unconscious bias leads us to expect to find traits like leadership and authority in men, but not in women. For many years, we’ve been conditioned to expect leadership roles to be held by men, and change is relatively recent.
So what can women do to address this unconscious bias?
And here are some steps that anyone, male or female, can take to help fight gender inequality in the workplace:
Awareness of language and gender bias takes time to develop. Pay attention to your speaking habits and start making changes so that you look more confident, self-assured, and reliable.
Matheus R. Chaud
I am a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker with extensive experience in translation, proofreading, editing, subtitling, and quality assurance.