How Women’s Language Belittles Our Thoughts In The Workplace
by Sydney Wishnow
by Sydney Wishnow
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been apologizing for my actions. At work, I use “sorry, could you explain…” to introduce any question I might have. If I have an idea for a project, I preface it with, “This might be a bad idea, but…”
Research has shown that women inadvertently use phrases that appear apologetic, surprised, and even uncertain of what they’re saying. Phrases like “if that makes sense,” “I may be wrong but,” or “sorry” flood women’s workplace vocabularies on a daily basis and can lead to opinions being undervalued. The habitual self-deprecating language women use at work is harmful and unnecessary.
I can’t remember when I started constantly apologizing or understating my thoughts, but I know that the impressions made on me as I grew up have contributed to these phrases being intertwined in my vocabulary. While I don’t know the experiences of all my female colleagues, I know I’m not alone in feeling like I need to modify what I say in order to avoid being viewed as incompetent, too harsh, or less than.
Women have a tendency to use language to diminish their ideas since they don’t know whether they’ll be highly considered in professional settings. We soften our language to demonstrate that we’re approachable and non-threatening, for fear that if we don’t, we’ll be viewed as too aggressive or rude. This is taught to us at a young age. While young boys are praised for being direct, girls are taught that they must be confident without being conceited, smart, but without being a know-it-all, ambitious, but not a try-hard, and assertive…so long as it doesn’t offend anyone. While we’ve made these adjustments to our vocabulary in professional environments, our male counterparts haven’t had to. Using language to conform to society’s beliefs of how a group should behave is an example of social conditioning, and it prohibits the free flow of ideas in the workplace.
There appears to be a Catch 22 for women in the workforce; if we are to move away from traditional gender stereotypes to assert ourselves as leaders, our colleagues may dislike us. On the other hand, if we soften our language to conform to societal norms, we’re often seen as less strong, and may not be taken seriously in leadership positions.
Similarly, these language patterns (also known as coded language) are keeping women, and disproportionately women of color, from being considered for leadership positions because they are not viewed as confident or decisive. Workplaces must make a constant effort to eliminate the social conditioning our female colleagues have dealt with for too long.
The process of applying to my first post-graduate job was intimidating. Between crafting cover letters and preparing for interviews, I had to carefully think about what was most important to me in a job. Ultimately, I wanted a place where I could grow as a professional and as a person — a job where I was empowered to ask questions. Honestly, it’s been difficult not to apologize before asking a question, or avoid justifying myself when I do; years of social conditioning in school and internships prevented me from fully owning my thoughts. Since joining Clyde Group, I’ve been challenged to use language in my vocabulary that takes full ownership of my ideas. I’ve slowly come into my own in large part due to my female colleagues who remind me each day to be proud of the work I do, and encourage me to use language that asserts my thoughts.
There is still plenty of work to be done across every industry to ensure all female-identifying colleagues feel comfortable to wholeheartedly share their ideas. Women need to take ownership of the language we use and must also actively be aware of the social conditioning that causes us to adopt language that belittles our thoughts or ideas. This isn’t only a job for women; team members of every gender must step in and make note that we must create a safe space for women to express themselves without the use of superfluous language. The more supportive an environment is, the more free-flowing conversations can be had.
So where do we go from here? How do we ensure that everyone at an organization feels safe and empowered in the workplace? For starters, we can intentionally think about the language we’re using, and how we can make positive changes to it. Rather than using self-deprecating speech, we can convey strength through our language by forming personal connections, giving praise, and building other women up with our language. It’s also equally important for our male counterparts to participate in using intentional language, through empathetic language, and apologizing in the professional setting when appropriate.
At Clyde Group, two of our principles are “intentionally diverse” and “powered by feedback.” I’m grateful to work in an environment that supports and encourages all team members to speak with conviction, not to apologize for their thoughts, and seek out women-led ideas and projects. The women we work alongside deserve to feel confident about their ideas. The language we use is powerful. We must challenge ourselves to use it as a way to create, connect, and move the world forward.
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