What are the challenges of women in the workplace? How can they be perceived as a powerful and successful professional? Their communication style may be impacting their success.
Mike and Michele started working at a new company at the same time. They had comparable work experience and were hired for similar positions. Could there be a difference between their communication styles? Absolutely! With an increased awareness of some of these differences, communication may be becoming more gender neutral. However, there are some inherent patterns that exist and one should be mindful of them.
The workplace and professional environment dictates what communication style is preferred. Power and professionalism may require different skillsets in the corporate or sales setting compared to the non-profit, healthcare, or academic world. We also may “code switch” our style depending on our conversational partner. For example, a public defender in downtown Baltimore may speak differently to her clients than to her colleagues.
Communication is comprised of three V’s-Visual, how you look; Vocal, how you sound; Verbal, what you say.
Visually, women tend to smile more, which can establish rapport, but may undermine authority when used in excess. Women also tend to show more active listening by their smiles, head nods, and vocal encouragement. Look around the room at a boardroom meeting. Women do not always take up as much physical space at the table. Keeping elbows close to the body, or crossing arms and legs makes one smaller and diminishes confidence and power. While standing, crossing ankles and shifting weight compromises your posture. Stand tall, hold your ground, and face your heart outwards!
Vocal patterns may reveal ones’ level of power and confidence. Uptalk and vocal fry are two major vocal features that are often attributed to women, particularly Millennial women; however, men and other generations are guilty of using these patterns as well. Uptalk or upspeak is a term describing a rising pitch at the end of a statement, making the speaker sound less confident and assertive. It also becomes a distraction to the listener. Studies have found that the uptalk speaker is perceived as less credible, especially by Baby Boomers! Vocal fry, glottal fry, or creaky voice is the term for speaking at the bottom of the pitch range with minimal breath support of the voice. This voice is often difficult to hear and lacks energy. Many women lower their pitch to sound more authoritative. This can lead to inappropriate vocal use and possible strain. Embrace the vocal variety that females possess; just avoid the extremes of becoming high-pitched and shrill when upset or nervous, or dropping down to vocal fry. Uptalk and vocal fry may undermine the authority and power of a female (or male) professional. Practice introducing yourself and saying simple sentences and bring your pitch down at the end of your statements. Remember; when there is a period at the end of a sentence, we drop our pitch!
Women tend to use verbal features that might diminish their professional image. Although this is changing, research reports that females do not communicate as directly as their male counterparts. Discounting your own idea (“You may not agree with me, but…..”) or frequent apologies when not required, inform the listener that you do not have the confidence of a successful professional woman. Overuse of qualifiers and adverbs, dilute the message (“I am totally excited about that fantastic conference!) Asking tag questions is inclusive and collaborative with the listener, but may jeopardize the authoritative perception of the speaker (“We’ll finish it this week, won’t we?”, “This is an excellent idea, isn’t it?”). Women also tend to be interrupted more than men. As Madeline Albright has said, you must “learn to interrupt, but only if you know what you’re talking about.” You can even support your female colleagues by confirming and restating their points in a meeting to make sure they are heard.
Both men and women want to speak concisely and have a clear message. How can we do this? I use an acronym, TIES, to give a framework to come across organized: T-State your topic, I-Introduce it, E-Give some examples, and S-Summarize your information. This can be used when speaking for 30 seconds or 3 hours. Try it and you’ll see how it keeps you on track.
Above all, we must be mindful about how our body language and gestures, voice, and words can affect our image. We should balance the three V’s to send a consistent message and express warmth, likeability, authority, and confidence. When all three are balanced, we present ourselves with a powerful and polished professional presence.