The hidden pressure of communicating that women face in the workplace

Woman holding coffee and phone, emails

Have you ever been in a position where the simple (and irrelevant) fact that the you’re a woman has been pointed out to you? 

That you’re aiming too high, you’re too ambitious? Perhaps you’ve been told you’re ‘too bossy’ or ‘cocky’ when you’ve been assertive, or criticised that your attire is akin to a ‘power suit’ or accused of wearing something too revealing in order to win favour? Do you worry that you won’t be taken seriously?

Do you consider your outfits when you’re buying them, trying something on in the changing room and then deciding against it because the skirt is a little too short, the top too low-cut? What about when you know you have a difficult conversation coming up with a colleague; do you plan ahead your tone of voice, language, body language? Because you’re aware you might come across as either too hard, too bitchy or too soft, too emotional?

We’ve, sadly, all been there. This kind of criticism comes from colleagues and peers of any gender,  in any industry, and it makes us think about our actions and behaviour, it makes us over-think.

When we’re communicating in person it isn’t just about the language we use. It’s our intonation, body language, facial expression, what we’re wearing, what we’re holding in our hands. When we’re speaking over email it’s often as difficult – do we use the correct punctuation to set the right tone, do we use emojis to soften the blow of a direct order? It’s so complex that it’s almost impossible to get right!

Or is it? What is right or wrong here? And who’s to say?

Let’s start with this; are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you trust yourself to make intelligent judgements, tough calls? Do you believe that you’re worthy of the position you’re in, that you’ve earned it, that you deserve it?

I know I’m asking a lot of questions here, but no more than we probably ask ourselves. The truth of it is, we have worked hard, we do work hard in spite of and perhaps because of all of these questions.

If you’re worried about being held back because of the way you communicate, or you have a team member, colleague or employee in this position, let’s look at how we can achieve a level playing field for communication in business.

Be yourself

If you’re normally chatty and bubbly, and would naturally use emojis or put kisses in an email, then do it! If you’re normally direct and to the point, embrace it! Don’t feel the need to decorate an email with insincere tidbits if it’s not you. If you’re not genuine in an email, it will be obvious. Likewise if you portray an image/online persona and then meet in person as a different version of yourself, the meeting will be jarring. Be yourself.

Don’t stand for bullying or persecution (lead by example)

This is what all this is after all. Give feedback on negativity or inappropriate behaviour in the moment if you can do so in a calm and measured manner, with a witness – or a little while later if you need to gather yourself before reacting.

Speak up if you see it happening in the workplace around you (or anywhere!) Make sure that you record incidents of any sort of bullying behaviour in the workplace. If you’re the business owner or manager, it will fall to you to raise these issues again in formal performance reviews.

Make sure that you explain why certain behaviour is unacceptable and reach an understanding with the person you’re educating. We must always try to change and educate before we exclude. There is no hope of ever improving someone’s attitude or diminishing ignorance otherwise.

And for the future generation of women in the workplace? Be the person you want your daughters or your friends’ daughters to be, to look up to. You are our voice, use it.

Communicate in a uniform way

We naturally change how we speak from person to person depending on intellect, position in the business etc. and this is okay, wise even, up to a point. BUT it is not okay when we use femininity to our advantage. We can’t have it both ways. So don’t flirt to get something you want if you would feel put-out if a colleague did the same. Which would be always, trust me. It’s unprofessional, causes resentment form other colleagues, reinforces judgement on your looks and attire, brings gender into the equation which is something we’re all working so hard to eradicate! And most importantly? It reinforces your own belief that women have to act a certain way to get anywhere in business, which you know isn’t true. So don’t let yourself down – earn what you want in an intellectual way. It feels infinitely more satisfying.

We recommend having email templates for consistency of communication, which you can obviously tweak each time you use them for the specific content you require.

Remember this…

As a woman in the world of entrepreneurs it’s easy to accept that we’re a minority. We feel boosted when there are several women at conferences, networking events and presentations. However, when I present to successful Business Owners, I don’t see ‘men’ and ‘women,’ I see Entrepreneurs! I see wonderful, imaginative minds and driven individuals – we are all so lucky to have each other to support us through, but I would encourage all of us to look past the gender divide and hold the belief that we’re on a level playing field – that we are all as powerful as each other. When we truly believe this, the divide will diminish and we will go from strength to strength.

About the author

Marianne Page is the founder of Marianne Page Ltd.

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