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Women still feel they have to soften their communication at work

More than half of women admit to “softening” their digital communication with coworkers. And that tendency only increases as women rise in their careers.

Women still feel they have to soften their communication at work
[Photo: Deagreez/iStock]

People are still telling women to smile. And it’s affecting their engagement and productivity at work.

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A new survey by Byte indicates that fact might need repeating. Nearly all of the women surveyed had been told to smile by someone else, with more than one-third (37%) being told to do so at work. Male coworkers were twice as likely to tell women to smile, but when a female supervisor told them to do so, it made women feel most undervalued.

But the relentless pressure to grin and bear it was just the beginning. Fifty-five percent of women admit to “softening” their digital communication with coworkers—using emojis and less direct language—to avoid coming off as harsh. That tendency increases as women rise in their careers. In addition, women who believe it’s important to be liked at work also increases with seniority. More than two-thirds of women in senior or executive roles say it’s important to be liked.

Likability’s cost

That’s a lot of time and effort going into parsing language and expression instead of getting things done, says Melody Kasulis, Byte’s creative strategist who spearheaded the campaign. And such dynamics can damage relationships and culture.

Researchers and organizations like Catalyst have documented the “double-bind” that women face in the workplace. When they buck gender stereotypes, they may be seen as competent leaders but disliked. When they soften communication to conform, they’re often not seen as strong leaders.

Walking that tightrope is difficult, but the answer to balance lies in authenticity, says Annette Y. Harris, founder and president of ShowUp!, a leadership consulting firm. She has encountered the double-bind question with her executive women clients, and it even came up at a Fortune 5000 organization’s women employee resource group (ERG). But, there’s also an unintended consequence of trying too hard to be likable, she says. When you try to soften your approach too much at the expense of who you really are, you’ll be less effective, and people will be less likely to trust you.

Getting past “smile”

Rosina Racioppi, president and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, Inc., a firm focused on development of women leaders, says that women may need more guidance in balancing likability and effectiveness. But, she also worries about “playing in to old stereotypes” in pressuring women to be liked, she says. Conversations about “likability” aren’t just a “women’s problem,” she says. “I’ve worked with some male leaders that I didn’t care for either. I don’t know that that’s a female issue or a male issue. We need to think about it as leaders. How do we be effective business leaders?” she says.

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At the same time, she says women tend to get more “transactional” feedback about specific assignments or tasks, while men tend to get more aspirational feedback. “For example, ‘In order for you to be a vice president here, you need to do A, B and C.’ Or, ‘These are the types of experiences,'” she says. Evening out that feedback can help women get a better vision of the type of leadership skills they need to develop, she says.

Organizations need to play a bigger role in mitigating this difference, Harris says. That includes cultivating strong diversity and inclusion initiatives, developing cultures where women leaders are valued, and conducting unconscious bias training. Encourage women in the organization to “speak truth to power” and involve men in the organization. “Their buy-in is key,” she says.

In the meantime, women can overcome some of the challenges of being strong and direct by also being authentic and building connections with the people around them, Harris says. “People are generally turned off by insincerity or by people they feel are insincere. Honesty—along with a genuine desire to support and lift up others in the workplace, backed up by actually doing it—goes a long way,” she says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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