The bad communication advice every woman gets in her career
March 24, 2021, marked Equal Pay Day — the day that symbolizes the additional time a woman has to work to earn the same salary as a man (AKA, 1 year + 2 months and 24 days). Now, this statistic is misleading for a number of reasons — you have to be employed to be counted (women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic), and Equal Pay Day for women of color (who take home just 60% of their white male counterparts) won’t happen for several months yet.
And this got us thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about why this is; specifically, the idea of the “confidence gap.” The confidence gap is the idea that because women are less “confident” at work, they’re less likely to ask for a raise/be taken seriously/level up in their careers/apply for a job/you-name-it-women-should-be-more-aggressive-at-it.
But here’s a hot take:
Maybe we should focus less on telling women to be more confident, and more on expanding our idea of how “successful” people act and communicate in the workplace.
One of the most striking examples of this disparity is in how we communicate at work. For example, we bet that every woman has gotten at least one of these notes about their communication style in their career:
4 common critiques women receive about their communication at work
- “Don’t use exclamations or excessive punctuation in emails.” Much has been made about how much more expressive women are in written communication in contrast to the short, tense-less sentences of the stereotypical male executive. But is a flat affect really a sign of professionalism and confidence, or merely a difference in style and grammar?
- “Don’t uptalk.” Forbes suggests that “ambitious women seek speech coaching to ‘neutralize distractions’ in their voice” and imitate male intonation. But, a study of Hong Kong business meetings found that leaders used upspeak up to 7x more than their subordinates, suggesting that upspeak can actually establish a “productive common ground among a work group, allowing [the speaker] to offer their ideas, knowledge, and demands to the group rather than imposing them.”
- “Don’t admit when you don’t know something / are having a tough day / need support.” Our therapists beg to differ.
- “Don’t bother getting multiple perspectives on a decision. It kills momentum.” ‘Move fast and break things” may be the Silicon Valley Credo — but if we’re dealing in cliches, consider “go fast alone, go far together” as a rebuttal.
What if we listened to women as they are?
Exclamations and all. And how does it impact women’s “confidence” when we treat the male intonation as standard? Author Rica Maestas cites the many performance benefits to being able to self-express in a way that feels natural, while researchers at the Vienna University of Economics and Business have written at length about the organizational benefits of “alignment between the goal and the identity.”
And so, on this Equal Pay Day, perhaps we can make a completely reasonable and achievable commitment: to stop treating arbitrary preference as a proxy for optimal performance — and to stop judging all communication styles by a white male standard.