For years, women have been told to communicate in the middle ground between aggressive and timid.
Say "we" instead of "I." Don’t be too sweet or too shrill. Veer too far over the assertiveness line and you’ll be seen as brusque and bitchy. But if you’re too nice, you’ll be seen as soft. Either way, forget about a leadership role.
And the research seemed to back that theory. In 2007, New York City-based nonprofit Catalyst conducted a widely publicized study about women facing that "double bind," being perceived as either too nice or too harsh.
A February 2010 study in the Journal of Personal Psychology found that women anticipate that negotiating on their own behalf will generate backlash, which often inhibits them from asking for what they want or deserve.
But times seem to be changing—New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing notwithstanding. An April 2014 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that, while men tended to rate themselves as more effective leaders in the workplace, women scored higher in effectiveness when others’ ratings were counted.
Instead of worrying about toeing the line, women should focus on the key areas that make everyone better communicators, says executive coach Amy Jen Su, co-founder of McLean, Virginia-based Isis Associates, and co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.
Worry less about others' expectations of how you’re supposed to speak and act and focus on who you are and what’s most effective for you, Su says. If you’re outgoing and gregarious, don’t try to play the part of the buttoned-up type. If you’re excited about something, it’s okay to show it. Trying to be something you’re not is just going to ring false with everyone, she says.
While women are sometimes counseled to speak in terms of "we" instead of "I," and to avoid claiming ownership of their accomplishments, that’s a recipe for never being chosen to lead, says Charlotte Beers, former Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reporting to Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, and author of I’d Rather Be In Charge. Beers advises women to not be shy about claiming their successes.
Beers says that communicating fiercely and passionately is well-trod ground for men, but not so much for women. Be brave and keep going, even if it takes you a while to get the hang of it, she says. Beers calls it an art form that women have to learn.
"[Men] have, for years, gained this kind of code of how to speak in that way—how to be brave, how to be boastful," she says.