Recently a trending article on my Facebook feed pointed out that women use the word "just" far more often than men in communication. The author and her colleagues realized how frequently they were using the word "just" – far more frequently than their male peers – and that it was damaging their professional interactions by making them sound hesitant, indecisive, and even timid about their areas of expertise. And they had been doing it all on a nearly subconscious level.
I was intrigued. I immediately snapped open my recent emails. My "justs" jumped out at me from every direction.
Ellen Petry Leanse, the author of that article, argues that by using the word "just" to temper assertive statements she and her female colleagues were indicating a "subtle message of subordination" which reinforced the status quo in her workplace.
But the majority of my professional interactions are with other women – and even when we were communicating with each other rather than with males, we still weakened our language to seem less decisive, less self-assured, less confident. And that got me thinking. Why had I and my colleagues been adopting a pattern of indecisive communication rather than assertive professionalism? I've personally had the privilege of having many, many #WomenInBiz role models throughout my life. The strongest and most successful business owners I know are all female: my mom, my aunt, and at least a dozen close (female) family friends are successful business owners who kick butt at what they do.
I know I've got professional skills and am great in my field, so why was "just" creeping into my biz language? I was undermining my own professionalism with every sentence, and so were my female coworkers. Even though I hadn't been raised to be timid – rather, I was encouraged to be assertive (thanks mom and dad) – I was still caving into the abstract cultural pressure to "act like a lady" rather than assert myself in the business field.
And with that realization I made a decision: to track down the best strategies for empowering women's communication in the workplace and start living by them. And I want to share them with you to empower other #WomenInBiz around the globe.
Now for the roundup.
Here are the 4 most effective + achievable strategies I've identified for empowering my communication as a #WomanInBiz:
1. Remove "just" from your vocabulary
Or at least drastically decrease how often you use "the J word" in a context where confidence is key: professional communication. Ellen Petry Leanse's article completely convinced me on this one. "Just" really does indicate a timidness which knocks the speaker (or writer – who is far more likely to be a woman than a man) into a submissive position within a dialogue, as if asking permission to state her own opinion and make her own decisions.
As a professional woman, you're an expert at what you do. And you have as much of a right to be decisive and assertive as any male communicator. So let's strike "just" from our biz vocab and own our own expertise.
2. Say it like you mean it
Speaking with clarity and conviction in professional situations boosts your credibility and asserts you as the expert you are. Avoid using weak modifiers like "somewhat," "sort of," or "kind of" and trailing uncertainties like "I think," "I guess," and "that kind of thing" – phrases like these diminish your authority. Instead, opt for sentence structures that indicate your competence. Choosing to speak with to-the-point confidence will emphasize that you mean business and are capable of holding your own.
And if you're wondering if you will be able to maintain a friendly and personal demeanor while being straightforward and confident, I've got an answer: Absolutely. Remember, confidence is very different from arrogance. You're not bragging; you're saying exactly what you mean and explaining exactly what you know.
3. Practice confident body language
There's a concept in gender studies called "gender performativity" which explains that gender is how you act just as much as (and often even more than) how you look. "Acting" female is something girls are taught in childhood: think sugar, spice, and everything nice, or what it means to be "ladylike." Placing an emphasis and strong value on women's physical daintiness is deeply ingrained in our society, and girls socially learn which types of body language are acceptable for women and which are off-limits. (Check out this great comic strip that totally nails what gender performance looks like for an illustrated explanation).
But as a professional woman, positioning yourself as small, dainty, and timid in the workplace puts you at a disadvantage to your male peers.
Practicing confident body language like pushing your shoulders back, opening your arms outward when you speak, placing your hands shoulder-width apart on the table at sit-down meetings, and resting your feet flat on the ground instead of crossing your legs at the knees or the ankles is a powerful way to signal professional confidence rather than submission. Let's take back our physical space.
4. Own your awesome!
Come on, you're a badass. Admit it, my friends.
One of the biggest barriers for women advancing their careers is failing to make their achievements known. You know you've got the goods, so don't downplay your achievements when speaking about yourself and career. Give credit where credit is due, and that means to yourself!
The same goes for your business: don't downplay your own success. Kristen and I stopped referring to Hoot as "a little design company" as soon as we realized that we were damaging the Hoot brand (and our own careers) by failing to accept our achievements.
There you have them: my top 4 achievable strategies for communicating as a woman in business.
I know it's not easy to shake the gendered socialization we've been taught for as long as we can remember. And I'll admit that I'm particularly susceptible to the pressure to be petite and physically contained: I'm 6' tall and constantly catch myself trying to shrink. But, like all of the strategies on this list, I'm actively working to represent self-confidence and effective communication as one of the many #WomenInBiz out there.