As a woman, have you ever found yourself using the phrases “I may be wrong, but…”, or “I’m not an expert in this, but…”, or excessively using the word “sorry…”? Research has found that women are much more likely to use self-deprecating or ‘softer’ language in the workplace.
Let’s take a closer look at what language women tend to use and why.
Do women undermine themselves with the language they use?
In Tara Mohr's book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead, she highlights that women adapt their language when communicating with colleagues in the workplace.
Through speech habits, women strive to appear apologetic, surprised, or even uncertain about what they are saying, which can lead to their opinions being undervalued. This constant diminishing of power through the language women use at work is harmful and unnecessary.
There are plenty of examples of the ways in which language can undermine a point is put across. The first example is inserting the word ‘just’- “I just think…” and “I just wanted to check”. Using the word ‘just’ makes the sentence sound less direct and more apologetic, which diminishes the intent of the point. Instead, say “I think...” and “I wanted to check…”
Similarly inserting the word “actually” has a similar impact on how we come across, “I actually disagree…” makes us sound surprised at ourselves that we have another viewpoint.
Another key theme is the use of qualifiers like “I may be wrong, but…” and “I’m not expert…” or “Correct me if I’m wrong…”. This type of language can sound as if the person is unsure of themselves, or their knowledge, which can undermine their position.
Lastly, another trend is that women tend to ask questions about the points they’ve made before getting a response, for example using: “If that makes sense?” or “Does that make sense?” These phrases are said with good intentions, to check that other people understand and to ensure the points are clear, however it can also be interpreted as condescending or implies that they are communicating confusingly or incoherently.
Why do women use this language?
A study conducted by Byte found that 55% of women admit to “softening” their digital communication with co-workers, such as using emojis or less direct language, to avoid being seen as harsh or abrupt. The research also highlighted that this tendency to ‘soften’ increases as women progress in their careers. In fact, according to the research, more than two-thirds of women in senior or executive roles say it’s important to be liked.
This is a key reason for women feeling the need to change their language at work. In Tara Mohr's book Playing Big, she discusses whether women use these kinds of communication habits to be strategic and have their voices heard. Known as ‘strategic softening’, women tend to use language that paints them as non-threatening or approachable in order to convey likability or to help them be heard in situations.
Research has shown that women who use strategic softening have sometimes been more direct communicators earlier in their careers, however, have been told that they are difficult to approach or even aggressive.
Women are faced with what is known as a ‘double-bind' when it comes to their language in the workplace. When they move away from gender stereotypes, they may be seen as strong leaders, however, they may also be disliked by their colleagues. Yet, when they soften their language in order to conform, they are often seen as less strong, and their leadership may be questioned.
Another reason why women use this sort of language is due to self-doubt, insecurity, or fear. Women will use phrases such as “I’m no expert in this…” or “Sorry, I just have a question to ask…” which reflect that they are unsure of themselves. The language isn’t strategic, instead, it shows self-doubt.
Dr Judith Baxter reported in ‘The Language of Female Leadership’, that women are four times more likely to use ‘Out-of-Power’ language, including engaging in ‘double-voice discourse.’ Double-voice discourse is when we assume that someone will respond negatively to what we have said and so use a qualifier to mitigate risk and try to overcome our insecurities.
Lastly, another reason why women may use this pattern of language is due to societal stereotypes or patterns of speech they have heard from childhood, whether from parents or grandparents.
Don’t men use these language patterns?
When it comes to the way men communicate at work, some have argued that these speech changes aren’t relevant to men simply because men wouldn’t worry about such things, or don’t actually use these patterns. However, others have suggested that this is a topic of discussion because it is one more thing that women are apparently ‘doing wrong’.
Both of these points seem unrealistic. When we look at the research, it reveals that actually, these speech habits are not interpreted the same way when they are used by men as when they are used by women. One study found that the use of qualifying phases only had an adverse effect on the speaker's perceived level of authority when the speaker was a woman.
This suggests that even if a man used some of these patterns in his correspondents, he wouldn’t be viewed in the same light than if it had come from a woman. This could be down to a number of things, from societal stereotypes to environmental factors and gender inequalities.
How to make positive changes
One of the key ways to make positive changes is to try to be authentic and build meaningful connections with co-workers. Annette Y. Harris, founder and president of ShowUp!, a leadership consulting firm highlights the importance of being true to yourself: “People are generally turned off by insincerity or by people they feel are insincere. Honesty—along with a genuine desire to support and lift up others in the workplace, backed up by actually doing it—goes a long way,” she says.
Instead of using self-deprecating speech or qualifiers to come across as being more likable or approachable, instead try using a different approach by conveying likability in more positive ways such as using light humour, forming personal connections, being positive, giving praise, and building others up.
However, it’s important to also note that for real change to happen, it’s not just down to women. If women feel the need to adapt their language to feel heard, shouldn’t we look more closely at business culture and the way women at work are perceived by others? Businesses and organizations need to have a role in this by cultivating healthy and inclusive environments at work, making women feel comfortable to be themselves, are valued as leaders and have their points heard without having to modify their language.
At STEM Women, we are passionate about addressing the gender imbalance in STEM. We host regular networking and careers events for students and recent graduates who identify as female and are looking to start their careers in a STEM industry. Our events provide employers with the opportunity to introduce their graduate opportunities, present inspirational speaker sessions, take part in insightful panel sessions and network with potential candidates. For information on our upcoming events, take a look at our events page and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
If you’d like to learn more about women in the workplace, read our article on positive action vs positive discrimination.