James Hamerstone & Lindsay Musser Hough
Forget the glass ceiling. The fact is: women communicate differently than men and, too often, to their own detriment. They tend to speak up less, apologize more, downplay their achievements and use less-powerful body language – all of which impact their career success.
This seed is often planted in early childhood, when women learn to avoid visibility and recognition. According to world-renowned linguist Deborah Tannen, men learn to display their abilities and knowledge and emphasize their status, while women learn to downplay ways they’re better than others in order to build rapport. As a result, women solicit and receive less recognition than men.
Not surprisingly, women tend to fall into the same patterns in the workplace. They’re reluctant to divulge their achievements, yet avoiding such discussion hinders their opportunities for recognition and advancement.
Here are five ways women sabotage their communication in the workplace:
1. Communicating Indirectly
Women tend to have an indirect communication style, using softening devices such as hedges and questions to soften their words’ impact. However, this tactic lacks a sense of assertiveness and authority. For example, saying, “If you get a chance, will you please draft and send me the meeting notes at your convenience?” is an entirely different statement than, “Please draft and send me the meeting notes tomorrow.” By being more direct, women typically find the results to be more aligned with their intent.
2. Downplaying Achievements
Women often have a fear of self-promotion. Part of the problem, according to Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, is that women are too modest – they believe accomplishments should speak for themselves. While men are more attuned to the power dynamics of a conversation, women focus more on the rapport elements. For example, to avoid seeming boastful, a woman may use the term “we” when referring to an achievement she actually performed on her own. By being specific and direct about their contributions, while giving appropriate credit to the team, women can ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.
3. Taking the One-Down Position
The traditional gender roles of business can relegate women to an impossible and perpetual one-down position, according to Tannen. A mismatch in how common rituals among women, such as exchanging compliments, play out can confuse exchanges in the workplace. For example, a woman might take the one-down position (“I don’t think my speech went well”) assuming the other person will recognize the ritualistic nature of the self-denigration and pull them back up (“Really? I thought you did great!”). However, men are more likely to respond with advice (“Well, you can always get a public speaking coach”). Similarly, women are socialized to downplay their certainties, while men are socialized to minimize their doubts. The problem for women is that the norms of business are based primarily on a male style of interaction. As such, a perception of indecision or uncertainty damages a woman’s credibility.
4. Apologizing More
Apologies are often used by women as a conversational ritual to establish rapport. However, apologies tend to be regarded differently by men, who focus more on the status implications of an apology. A 2010 study by psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross found that women apologize more often than men and have a lower threshold for what warrants an apology. For instance, women tend to apologize for situations that aren’t their fault or are out of their control. However, excessive apologizing leads to women being perceived as weak and, as a result, limits their influence and opportunities. As such, women must learn to recognize when an apology is and is not necessary.
5. Using Less-Powerful Body Language
Men naturally take up more space and convey a sense of power. By using less-powerful body language – such as folded arms, indirect eye contact or a weak handshake – when interacting with others, women are putting themselves at a disadvantage by conveying a sense of inferiority. Instead, they should make a point to practice body language that conveys a sense of confidence and authority.
By recognizing these communication nuances and the role they place in hindering career advancement, women can better equip themselves for achieving success both in the workplace and in their personal lives.
About the Author
James Hamerstone is an assistant professor of management at Gettysburg College, where he created the popular “Women in Organizations” seminar. He co-authored A Woman’s Framework for a Successful Career and Life, and is a frequent speaker on the topic of women and work. To learn more, visit: www.careersuccessadvice.com
Lindsay Musser Hough is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP. She co-authored A Woman’s Framework for a Successful Career and Life, and coaches women on a variety of crucial career development topics, including career navigation, networking, work-life fit and personal branding. To learn more, visit: www.careersuccessadvice.com