What underpins the workplace gender gap? It may be just words. This is the finding of a new study in Management Science out of Washington State University, in which researchers successfully made a workplace gender gap disappear via language choices.
The statements and advice of women are commonly less believed than those of men. Researchers aimed to pinpoint why in a study that asked 1,000 people to play a challenging online game while listening to the game advice of men and women—some of whom used more-assertive language and some of whom used less-assertive language.
The study found that when women employed assertive language, their advice was just as likely to be followed as the men’s advice, and the gender gap disappeared. Players were more likely to take the assertive advice from both men and women.
The most successful advice givers didn’t just state their advice, but couched it in almost-self-aggrandizing language that bluntly reminded listeners of their skills and expertise. Speakers repeatedly reminded listeners that:
- the speaker is an expert
- the speaker is sure that her advice is the best advice
- the speaker’s abilities and skills are excellent
- the speaker is trusted by others
- the speaker’s advice is an asset
In other words, the assertive talkers created auditory billboards for their competence, and did not express any ambivalence or doubt. Here are examples of successful and not-successful deliveries of advice:
Less assertive: “I am not sure how good a leader I will be.”
Very assertive: “If you listen to my advice, I can assure you that my skills and experiences will help you perform well in this game.”
Less assertive: “I am not sure whether it is a good choice.””
Very assertive: “I am convinced that it is the best choice.”
Less assertive: “You probably have better problem-solving skills than I do, but here is what I am thinking.”
Very assertive: “I have extremely strong problem solving skills and my advice can be an asset to you.”
Less assertive: “I am not sure, but it might help.”
Very assertive: “My strengths include exceptional analytical thinking. You need to do ___.”
Less assertive: “I don’t know, but playing four seems like it’s working.”
Very assertive: “I have earned the trust of my peers in the past, and I strongly encourage you to play 4.”
Less assertive: “I might be missing something in choosing play 4.”
Very assertive: “I have figured out how to make good decisions in this experiment. Trust me, 4 is the best play.”
Less assertive: “I don’t know if this is helpful, but my thought is that maybe you can make the computer think that you are Type B by playing 4.”
Very assertive: “I gravitate naturally to instruction and am keen to help you. The smart move is play 4.”
This study and others have found that women are unlikely to use such assertive language unless directly instructed to do so, while men will use it without prompting.
Before you head off into the sunset with a more aggressive lexicon, consider that this study did not evaluate the reputational effects of using such language, which the researchers call “assertive cheap talk.” Does everyone hate assertive cheap talkers? Or is everyone just unduly persuaded by them? Stay tuned for future research.