As young women, we are encouraged to use cooperative language, not assertive language. Whether that is by our parents or society, we’re expected to follow the status quo and not rock the boat and this extends into our careers and interactions.
Research over time has shown that women are more likely to use tentative language than their male counterparts. Have you ever typed out an email and gone over it ten times to make sure you sound nice and likeable? Using sugar-coated phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘no worries if not’. Softening your speech not to come off as too abrasive? The hedges and tentative words may sound harmless but could be holding us back in our careers.
Perhaps subconsciously, we feel the need to soften our tone so that we come across as amiable, compliant, and disarming. These are qualities valued in women. Something as simple as the language we use in our emails can help perpetuate stereotypes. It’s not to say assertiveness is intrinsically masculine. It is more about how society sees women. It has been ingrained in many of us from a young age to behave, be nice and quiet.
Of course, this is not true for all women. According to career coach Robert Stewart, women in leadership positions use assertive language much more frequently. It is of course not just limited to women; research shows it’s more about knowing your worth rather than gender differences. However, more women seem to engage in tentative language and are much more likely to send emails full of exclamation marks, qualifiers, and self-deprecating language. Instead of coming across as more likeable, cushioning our requests in endless pleasantries can just make us come across as unsure of ourselves.
Men are praised for their assertiveness, confidence, and self-assuredness. It propels them forward through their careers and into powerful places. Women on the other hand, when showing the same traits, are judged as bossy or rude. It’s only normal that we’d want to avoid this type of backlash. So, instead, we pander to the expectations set out for us, often forgoing what we really want.
This can especially be a problem when asking for a pay rise. Research shows that only forty-three per cent of women are comfortable with asking for a pay rise, over sixty-four per cent of men. Despite many being unhappy with their salary. The very prominent gender pay gap and learned belief that women are not as authoritative as men, means that many women may not feel comfortable asking for what they want. Subsequently, making women disadvantaged by a system that rewards assertiveness and those willing to engage in negotiation.
According to Ruby Dinsmore, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon: “Men are often far more forceful when it comes to negotiations and much more commercial in their approach, which generally results in higher salaries and better packages.”
Research shows that often women can be labelled as pushy when exhibiting the same behaviours as their male colleagues. It’s important for us to realise and embrace that there is nothing wrong with coming across as strong. In both our emails and face-to-face interactions. Develop a tone that feels right for you. There are many ways to communicate with warmth and compassion, without lessening your impact.
Healthy assertiveness shows that you know your worth and are not willing to accept less than you deserve. Being confident, self-assured, and authoritative does not have to mean being impolite or contemptuous. Treat others with the respect that you also desire for yourself, remembering that you can be both friendly and strong. Take out undermining phrases, clearly state your opinion, and ask directly for what you want. This will help boost your confidence and success in the workplace.
If you want a pay rise, more respect at work or just generally want to be more assertive in life, you can start by recognising your speech patterns in emails. Asking for what you want is important, whether that be in your career, relationship or family life. From a macro point of view, it isn’t really so scary. You have to ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?
Rosie Jempson is a recent International Development master’s graduate and News Reporter. She is passionate about empowering working women, voicing inequalities in the workplace and advocating for positive change.