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The publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In reignited the national conversation on gender equality in the workplace. Some have speculated that what holds women back is a lack of ambition. Others, including me, don’t believe that. What often doesn’t get as much play in the media is the disparity in men’s and women’s communication styles.
But, it’s those gender differences in communication that can hold women back. Many women still believe that if they work hard the powers that be will notice and reward them. While others have learned that that they need to speak up and ask for that raise or promotion, they often don’t realize that their communication style may be holding them back. Because they don’t speak up during meetings or cite their contributions to team projects they may go unnoticed at the office. So when they do ask for something they may not get it.
Certainly, we’re aware of cultural differences in communication. In the United States, for example, we are taught to look people in the eye when speaking to them. It indicates interest in the other person and demonstrates confidence in ourselves. However, in other cultures direct eye contact can be considered rude.
However, even within the same culture there are gender differences. When left unchecked these disparities in style can negatively affect women’s success in the workplace. Here are a few of their characteristics:
Women tend to:
Men tend to:
Studies show that men’s speech is considered forceful and assertive; women’s speech polite and respectful. This is one of the reasons men get taken more seriously in business situations. Being assertive isn’t easy, particularly for women.
One of the easiest ways to speak more assertively is to eliminate qualifiers like “maybe” and “perhaps” from your conversation. Another way is to drop “tag questions” from the end of your statements. For example, instead of saying, “I think we should revise the presentation, don’t you?” say “I think we should revise the presentation.”
Make a statement then bite your tongue. Adding tags like “don’t you?” at the end of a statement makes you seem uncertain and deferential. On the other hand, when men use these same qualifiers and tag questions they are considered polite.
Women who want to be taken more seriously should think before they speak. Next time you’re sitting in a meeting, concentrate on dropping qualifiers and “tag questions” from your speech. Sit at the table instead of on the sidelines and speak up. State your ideas clearly. Being assertive will help you get people to actually listen to your ideas, not just hear what you say. And that’s one of the best ways to get noticed.