Speech is capital. Those who can’t make themselves heard at work often find less success, so much so that there’s an entire industry built to help you improve your speaking and your “executive presence.” The world of self-help and executive coaching likes to repeat a common refrain in advice to women: fix your distinctly feminine way of speaking and you’ll be rewarded with recognition and success.
You’ve heard it before: women apparently apologize too much, use “hedge” words, and even speak with “annoying” vocal fry. And you could, with effort, change those things about how you speak. But is that really what’s been holding women back? And do women really even do those things any more than men?
How Men and Women Speak Online
According to Hive’s study on workplace habits, no. Women and men use “passive” language at nearly the same rate. Men say “thanks” more often, and women use more emojis and exclamation points, but both say “sorry,” “please,” and “I think” almost equally. As a professional writer, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. People react to the speaker, not their actual speech. (You might have even heard about my email switching experiment to that effect.) In other words, it’s not that women are putting out vastly different messages — it’s that those messages are being received and interpreted differently.
The Hive study also found something interesting about how the two genders communicate publicly and privately: men tend to contribute more in group chats, while women use direct messages more heavily than men. Quartz writer Leah Fessler also wrote about how the men and women in her office use Slack differently, and that it ties into the concept of psychological safety, or the ability to take risks and share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment. She posited that direct messages are a place of safety and camaraderie for women, who are more likely to fear that their remarks will be discounted and undervalued in group chats.
Speaker, You Have the Floor
The space you take up — and the conversations you lead and command — are both dictated by and have on influence your status. In an essay about linguistic fallacies called “Women Talk Too Much” by Janet Holmes, Holmes writes that “men generally talk more in formal, public contexts where informative and persuasive talk is highly valued, and where talk is generally the prerogative of those with some societal status and has the potential for increasing that status.” At the same time, Holmes found that women spoke for the same amount of time or more when they were invited to, such as in an interview, or when speaking was considered cooperative and helpful.
Expertise and status definitely play a part in conversational dynamics –those who feel confident in their knowledge of a subject tend to claim more speaking time for themselves. But as we all know, confidence in one’s own expertise does not always track with actual expertise, especially when your perception of yourself is so heavily colored by your gender.
Men tend to rate their own abilities and expertise a bit higher than they really are, and women tend to rate themselves a bit lower than they really are. Men cite themselves in academic papers more often than women do. On average, a man will apply for a job when he has 60% of the required qualifications, but a woman will only apply if she has 100%. People also tend to rate men’s competence and credibility higher than women’s in study after study after study after study, even when all other factors remain equal.
How Do We Build a Better Conversation?
Women’s contributions are being underutilized, and their words hidden away in private messages while public forums remain overwhelmingly male. So how can we make space for the speech of underrepresented team members, and provide equal access to the social and professional capital that speech gives us?
The first step, in my opinion, is to stop policing women’s speech and asking them to make their own speech more palatable or dominant. It seems clear that the problem is not how women actually speak, but how their words are received. The “vocal empowerment” approach ignores implicit bias and the imbalanced perception of expertise and credibility.
I believe that the answer instead lies in proactively valuing and making space for the comments and contributions of everyone in the room and on the channel. We need to learn to notice which voices are missing from the discussion, and amplify those voices. The @ command exists — it’s never been easier to ask for an opinion or reiterate a great thought with credit to its author on most platforms.
Try it. You won’t believe the kind of conversations you’ve been missing.