Every so often, a crop of articles pop up on the Internet advising women of what words NOT to use in the workplace. The common culprits (“sorry”, “in my opinion”, etc.) are thought by some to diminish professional women’s credibility. Former Google executive Ellen Petry Leanse’s piece on the damages caused by using the word “just” was circulated widely last summer.
The thought behind this trend is that if women could only speak more like men, we would increase our odds of achieving success in male-dominated environments. But not everyone agrees – an interesting counter argument has risen that begs the question: should women talk more like men at work, or should men talk more like women?
To begin to answer this question, one must first search for an answer as to why some women may heed Leanse’s advice and alter their speech to mimic a man’s. Clearly there cannot be one answer to account for all women’s experiences and behaviors, which is an important point to note. We cannot know that all women who do this are lacking self-confidence or cowering to authority. Tara Mohr references in her piece, “How Women Undermine Themselves With Words”, that women often have good intentions, personal experience, and modern behavioral science on their side when using some traditional female language tools: “We want to check in with other people in the conversation and make sure we’ve been clear…most women are using these speech habits to soften our communications, to try to ensure we don’t get labeled…as bitchy, aggressive, or abrasive.”
Speech habits that seek out these goals – to increase clarity, openness and humility – are not deficits in the female wheelhouse that need to be eradicated. As the bold and clever article “Just don’t do it” puts it, disregarding these speech habits is tantamount to disregarding common courtesy in social situations. Not taking others’ feelings into account during a conversation is not an abhorrent female trait that we should cleanse ourselves of. Taking pop culture’s advice and speaking without basic politeness won’t make women sound smarter – it will make us “sound like rude, inconsiderate jerks”.
The one-sidedness of this conversation must also be addressed. Amidst all this noise about what women need to do to be effective in their jobs, where are the articles advising men on the same subject? Why are we encouraging women to be more aggressive and not encouraging men to be more humble?
The underlying assumption in this guidance is that men’s professional language and demeanor is preferable to women’s. While men still surpass women in many industries in terms of rank and pay, our culture routinely asks women to hurry up and change their professional behavior to mimic a man’s. This idea parallels public service campaigns and policies aimed at preventing sexual assault that focus on the victim’s behaviors and actions – dress modest, walk in pairs, stay sober – rather than education geared to potential attackers – respect others’ personal space, listen when someone says no, seek out consent.
When it comes to words in the workplace, we are essentially instructing women to do the exact thing we claim to be overcoming – combat sexism by adhering to it. Promoting language that caters to confidence and clarity is a positive thing, but not when it also diminishes language that cultivates humility and vulnerability – traits that we commonly associate with women.
The greatest flaw in this war of words to me is this: the simplification of gender inequity in the workplace. The assumption that if women can only code their emails to sound more like a man, they too can achieve success, only perpetuates the myth that this path is not only acceptable, but preferable to real systemic change. It’s asking women to change themselves and then stop and asking men to do nothing. It’s furthering inequality by devaluing traits deemed as subconscious, natural or inherent to women and upholding more masculine traits as the preferred status for all.
So how does real change in the workplace come about? Our only chance is to combine individual action with widespread and systemic policies. Placing the burden on the shoulders of women equates us to hamsters in a spinning wheel. Instead of always looking inward to try and fix our reality, let’s accept that it’s okay to look outward and demand more from our institutions, our leaders and our men.
Kim Schoetzow is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.