For many women in the workplace, this feedback about their performance and conduct is all too familiar: You are not confident enough, you need a stronger leadership presence, you need to participate more. Is the assessment that women are less likely to be assertive actually true? Or is it a misconception?

Interestingly, much of this stems from the way women use language. There has been a lot of research and debate on how women communicate, why and if it differs from the way men communicate, and the impact it has on how women are perceived. From time to time, you may have seen how-to guides for women who want to strengthen their communication like the following. 

Language “Mistakes” Women Are Encouraged To Avoid:

  • Using the word “just”
    • DO: I want to follow up.
    • DON’T: I just want to follow up
  • Using qualifying statements like “I think” or “I believe”
    • DO: We need a bigger budget. 
    • DON’T: I think we need a bigger budget.
  • Adding tag questions to the end of sentences
    • DO: This looks good. 
    • DON’T: This looks good, doesn’t it?
  • Phrasing instructions or commands as questions
    • DO: Please complete this by Friday. 
    • DON’T: Can you please complete this by Friday?

These examples by no means apply to all women or exclusively to women for that matter. In fact, no conclusive evidence has been found to state that women use these words more often at all. Yet when women do use language like this, it perpetuates an existing stereotype that we are not authoritative, are afraid of confrontation, or are needy. 

Why Might Women Use Language Differently?

When women pepper their speech or emails with words like “just”, “actually”, “I think”, or “I believe”, it makes us come across as less certain or competent. To others, it sounds like we are hedging our bets or are insecure about our ideas. In reality, this tends to be an attempt to soften our statements, avoid being labelled as overconfident, or protect ourselves from being blamed or shamed for what we say. 

I didn’t even know what tag questions were until I read that as a woman, I may be prone to using them too much. This grammatical addition, when used by women, gives the impression that we are weak or inattentive for constantly needing confirmation. There are many potential causes for women using tag questions. The one that personally resonated with me is that they are a mere way of being polite. Many of us use them as rhetorical questions out of habit – to engage the other person and to avoid sounding too blunt. 

Speaking of rhetorical questions, women are believed to phrase sentences as questions more often than men. What may not be clear to all is whether the question should be taken literally. Since women are often condemned for being “bossy”, the intention is likely to use questions to reduce the likelihood of appearing too demanding.

So, Should Women Change Their Language?

Of course, everyone can improve the way they communicate. We can all be more direct, authentic, and influential with our words. But why is it a popular notion that women are the ones in need of most improvement? 

A recent Harvard Business Review article made the refreshingly bold statement that we, as a society, need to stop telling women they have impostor syndrome, the feeling of doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud at work. This made me pause and reflect. At some point, many women including myself, believe they suffer from impostor syndrome. Do we genuinely feel less confident or are we being made to believe we are? Every now and then, I question how I come across in my emails and try my best to edit and perfect my tone. I never asked why I wanted to change the way I write. Was it for self-development or out of self-consciousness?

By providing the feedback that particular words or phrases are weak and diminish your credibility as a professional or a leader, we have to consider how much that actually helps women. Does it reinforce the belief that women have impostor syndrome? That we feel weak and therefore come across as weak? For those of us who are happy with the way we communicate, will that sow the seed of doubt in us and pressure us to conform? And the bigger question is, if we do change our language, will that change how we are perceived? Will we not then be seen as too loud, abrasive, bossy, or annoying? It’s a frustrating catch-22.

Let’s Talk About the Bigger Picture

The onus has traditionally been on women to adapt their way of communicating – speak up, be more assertive, own the room. Change your speech, edit your emails, do what it takes to become a “strong woman”. But is that the right approach? 

Communication is a two-way street. Yes, we can empower women to express themselves more freely, but that is not enough. We must also educate everyone to understand and have empathy for women’s perspectives and experiences. In short, we need to unlearn the biases that are holding women back.

The truth is, we use language in particular ways because of how we have been socialized. Women, people of color, differently abled people, and LGBTQ2+ people have faced biases, microaggressions, and discrimination for so long that it has caused us to adapt the way we use language. We do not have the privilege to express ourselves in the conventionally celebrated manner, yet are labelled as incompetent or insecure for trying to safeguard ourselves. 

A More Inclusive Solution

Fortunately, we are now seeing a shift. More and more people are realizing that it is not incumbent upon women, but everyone to create an environment that is accepting and safe for all to express themselves. Misinterpretation affects everyone, but in “eurocentric, masculine, heteronormative” environments, it can have a disproportionate impact on the ability of women and marginalized groups to thrive.

Simply changing the way we use language does not take into consideration the full picture – it overlooks the nuances of unconscious biases and intersectionality. Instead of blanket advice, include more women in discussions, listen with patience and an open mind, create opportunities for mentoring, and provide alternative forums to contribute safely. The more space people have to interact free of judgement, the more we can learn about each other and the less we need to “read between the lines.”

Everyone should be able to express themselves without limitations or consequence, but this is not something that we can change overnight. It will take time and it will take work. In the meantime, as the world progresses towards having more diverse workplaces, it is important for everyone to take the time to recognize, understand, and accept the communication patterns of women from all intersections of life. Whether you are soft-spoken, talkative, ask a lot of questions, or just say “just” a lot, you deserve to be heard.