How bold business writing can help women at work

women at workI asked “What happens when women are bold?” My post got an enthusiastic and impassioned response. And I think those responses provided some clues on how women at work can get credit and fair treatment for their ideas — through writing.

Today’s post includes generalizations. I don’t think all women are alike, or all men, or all workplaces. But it’s clear that there are patterns in how women at work get treated, and how they achieve their goals — Deborah Tannen wrote a whole book about it. Even if you, personally, don’t believe these patterns apply to you, it takes willful blindness to deny the overwhelming cultural pattern. So let’s deal with it.

I compiled blog comments, Facebook comments, and emails to get a clear idea of what’s going on.

Women at work face a challenging environment

Many women told me that the culture and biases in their work environments challenged their abilities to get their ideas across. Women who did speak out boldly risked the perception of being “bitchy.”

Our culture has taught us to be more accommodating, and males are accustomed to being seen as the experts in the room. (Nancy)

[W]omen [are more] “vulnerable to interruption” . . . . That’s certainly something I’ve experienced personally in conversation, much more often by male peers. (Abby)

Many a time I’ve been on a panel addressing a room of 500+ and been literally one of only 5 women in the room—which one might think could be statistically impossible in the media industry. And then the male peers interrupt and talk over me. Sometimes it’s so blatant it’s comical. (Allison Dollar)

I have witnessed a lot of work experiences where hierarchy is the biggest inhibitor to being able to present your POV – it’s simply not an option. And since the higher positions are typically held by males, it makes it even more intimidating unless you’ve established confidence in other settings. (Caroline)

In meetings I also find that the initial spark of a good idea may come from a woman, but a man will build upon it to make it his. (Julie Petroski)

[O]thers perceive the same clear, direct, (usually critical) communication from men as “straight shooting” and from women as “abrasive and threatening.” (Laura Koetzle)

People tend think that communication coming from women in particular should have Harmony as its top priority. This has caused me a lot of suffering, because, since I prioritize analysis over emotionality, women see me as a scary outsider, and men often see me as “harsh” (Naomi Most)

As a female, if I am “bold and forthright” in comments, especially to a male, I am seen as “bitchy and demanding”. (Debbie)

Many men see women as nags (many get nagged at home), so if you are questioning or offering an opinion, you are a nag first, co-worker second. (Chris Syme)

They’ve learned to defer to others

Teachers and parents have typically rewarded deferential behavior from young women, who then learned to defer in the workplace. If my correspondents are correct (and I think they are), women apologize way too much.

Women are taught from a young age that they are supposed to be deferential and polite (I’m sure many men are taught this, too, but it tends to be a cultural expectation for women). (Melissa)

Many of us in the industry were well bred. Those of us over 40 were raised to, “Speak-only-when-spoken-to” and to “Wait our turn.”  . . . As women we are just about always concerned about how everyone is “feeling” or “doing.” (Seana Mulcahey)

[W]omen tend to use more deferential language (maybe, perhaps, kind of , sort of) because we are preserving relationships. (Kathy Klotz-Guest)

Women use qualifiers because when we don’t, men perceive us as being hostile. (Anita)

I hear women apologize and cede valid points when neither is necessary. (Jen)

The big difference in gender communication in meetings that I’ve noticed is that men are more confident that their opinion is valid and important, women less so. I hear a lot of “this may be a stupid question…” or “maybe I’m confused, but…” from women (I’ve even said this myself) in meetings. (Ayelet)

Women are so guilty of this [apologizing thing]. “I’m sorry but I have one more thing to say”, . . . “This is probably stupid but . . . “, “You have probably already thought of this, but . . .” . . . Stop it! It is so demeaning. (Diane Hessan)

Writing boldly can help solve these problems

Bias exists in our culture. And in meetings, it’s difficult to fight both the attitudes in the room and the ones you were raised with. But in writing, you have the opportunity to reset expectations. While some of my correspondents said their emails were perceived differently based on their gender, I contend that if you write in clear, logical, and powerful ways, you’ll get what you deserve. You can fight your tendency to equivocate, editing out weasel words before you publish or send.

I find written communication is easier; clear writing is clear writing. (Jen)

I have a big advantage when communicating through email or in a written report, where I can think through the points I want to make. (Kate)

When I write an email, I go back and strip out . . . modifiers, and turn questions into statements as much as possible. (Lisa W)

I can’t fix the culture (and anyone who has ever participated in a meeting with me knows, I am a part of it). But I’ve worked with some incredible women, and I resist the biases that both genders have put in their way. By embracing clear, direct, and powerful writing — by putting the biggest ideas up front, clearing out weasel words, and getting to the point — women can get equal consideration for their perspectives.

I think that a woman who has expressed herself clearly in writing will get more of the respect she deserves in person — and will probably gain more confidence in presenting her ideas as well. Writing can’t solve all of these gender-based issues. But it’s a good place to start.

Because, let’s be frank, we’d rather not live in the world portrayed in this video.

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  1. THANK YOU. I have experienced this over the years, but I thought it was just a quirky trait of my own. Yes, when writing it down, I express concepts more thoughtfully, and I do believe it has influenced how others perceive me before we ever go face-to-face. It is worth every woman’s (and man’s) while to learn to write well.

  2. The video was horrifyingly accurate. I’ve faced the gender biases as above my entire professional life. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a better speaker than I am a writer. I hope that improving those skills will spill over into my speaking as well, at least with regards to apologizing!!

  3. Josh,

    Thanks for this and your previous post. Your editor is on point and I’m waiting with bated breath for updates on your book’s release. I also appreciate your genuine curiosity and respect in responding to the comments, and I’m sure many other commenters would agree.

    That said, I have a quibble and I’d like to know what you think. I shared this post on Facebook accompanied by the following:

    “So overall, sure, the piece is full of good points on the virtues of directness. Which makes it all the more annoying that the writer readily brushes off women’s experiences that result from simply having their names attached to a piece of writing (‘While some of my correspondents said their emails were perceived differently based on their gender, I contend that if you write in clear, logical, and powerful ways, you’ll get what you deserve’). And these experiences have been replicated in studies showing that scientific papers published under female authorship are often discounted solely on the basis of the author’s gender.”

    I believe your point is, regardless of gender and gender-based assumptions, writers have tools at their disposal to enhance the chances that they’ll be taken seriously and that readers will focus on the substance of their ideas rather than the delivery or the deliverer. (To paraphrase an earlier comment, bad writing is bad writing.) But I didn’t see anything in the comments to indicate that bad writing was the issue – everyone who described this problem was pretty clear about its origin. After reading your empathetic responses to the earlier comments, it’s disappointing to see something this cavalier make its way into a full post.

    I’d love to hear your thought process on this point. Thanks!

    1. There is bias. It exists towards women’s written communication and towards their communication in person. It’s a shame, but it exists. The question is, what to do about it?

      What I’m telling women to do is focus on clear, bold, powerful and factual written communication, which is their best chance to get the respect they deserve. Build on that.

      I’d rather fix the cultural issue, but that’s beyond my ability. What I can do, though, is tell women, and everyone, how to write better.

  4. I have sat in meetings and had my remarks not heard at all. Other meetings, two minutes later a man quoted me exactly (without credit) and got praise for “his” bright idea. And now that my hair is greying, I’m not only not heard, but not seen as well. It’s very difficult to maintain a good attitude in these situations. I am a very good public speaker and an excellent writer, but when my boss thinks of me, he just sees “detail oriented.”