In every conversation there are things that are said, and much more that passes below the surface un-said. I’ve been thinking a lot about the words we use – and don’t use – in professional settings and the unspoken assumptions and attitudes behind those choices.
There’s an article by Soraya Chemaly that’s been making the rounds on Social Media about the 10 words every woman should use. It’s a truly fantastic data-based analysis of the way differences in social conditioning around communication styles for men and women have lifelong impacts, in and out of the workplace. I highly recommend you give it a look – especially if you’re a man. It got me thinking, what are the phrases that men should use more? How can we be better allies, friends, and colleagues to the women in our lives? How would this impact our relationships with other men? It’s absolutely essential for women to speak up and demand to be heard, but it’s equally essential for men to support them when they do.
Some of you are already rolling your eyes and feeling attacked. Cut it out! Equality is a worthwhile objective in it’s own right but if you can’t be bothered to care about the welfare of half the species, stop and consider that in purely economic terms sexism is bad for business. Gender has nothing to do with intelligence and so the cultural tendency to discount women’s input is both dangerous and inefficient. Businesses — especially in knowledge-based industries — pay employees to contribute their thoughts and actions. Why would you throw away the very thing you’re paying people to contribute? This is one area where social justice and business goals are synonymous.
So what are those phrases?
“What do you think?”
As Chemaly’s article pointed out, men interrupt each other all the time and we interrupt women even more frequently. Among men, talking over each other is often a sign of excitement and engagement but women who do it are often viewed as bossy or worse. It’s a real double standard and one worth tackling head on. Because women (more than men) are socialized from childhood to avoid interrupting, the lack of open space in conversation can often mean they simply do not speak. Nicola Sturgeon (imo one of the great stateswomen of modern politics) has ruffled feathers by making a point of stopping in her public meetings to ask women to speak and inviting them to participate where they might otherwise have been drowned out. By all accounts, it’s had a transformative impact on the shape of the meetings and public forums she leads. I suspect it would have a similar impact in the board room. Don’t be satisfied with just hearing from the same few people!
“That’s a great idea!”
Recognition is the oxygen of cooperative discourse. This is as helpful for the nervous young man who could use some encouragement as it is for the woman who has probably not gotten her due in previous positions.
“I agree with _______”
One of the big points that Chemaly raises is the way men will often re-state a female colleague’s just-stated idea and have everyone in the room react as if they’d come up with it themselves. I’ve seen this happen more times than I could count. It sucks. Don’t be that guy! Start off by clearly giving credit to the person who first made the suggestion, perhaps followed by a few words about how the person who suggested it in the first place is worth listening to, and then state why you like the idea.
Consider the difference:
“I agree with Jane, if we do xyz it is much more likely to result in abc. She has a lot of experience with ______ and it’s a really great point.”
“We should do xyz if we want abc”
One gives appropriate support and recognition to a hard working colleague, the other presents someone else’s idea as if it was your own.
I think we could all say thank you more. Public expressions of appreciation are critical to build a strong culture of collaboration that can foster innovation. In many workplaces it’s common for a team lead to get all the credit for the work the team does. This sort of thing destroys moral and obscures the real contributions everyone in the group has made.
Further, because women are under-represented in leadership roles (especially in tech companies) women’s contributions are disproportionately less likely to be recognized, which in turn leads to a culture that does not value them as a group and reinforces the tendency to not promote them into leadership roles. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that some of the hardest working and most dedicated professionals I know are women.
I’ll end by adding one last thing. It is a deeply ingrained part of our culture in America that the showman gets credit for the show. Everyone talks about Steve Jobs the visionary but they don’t talk about all the people who made that vision a reality. The thing is, talking and doing are different skill sets and it’s worth taking the time to consciously set aside those cultural norms. The quiet worker who keeps her or his head down and focuses on the job at hand is just as essential to your company’s success as their colleague who talks big. Recognizing them is an opportunity to support your colleagues and encourage them to continue moving the needle.
The repercussions of missing that opportunity are incalculable, both for women and for the companies that fail to support them and acknowledge their contributions. If you can’t bring yourself to re-evaluate your behavior because it’s the right thing to do, think about your bottom line and suck it up. This is too important to stay neutral.
What would you add or change about this list?
*I shouldn’t have to point out that using these phrases more in general would be a good thing, not just around women. There are plenty of men who would be glad of a bit more recognition and acknowledgement too.