In her book Feminist Fight Club, recently excerpted on Fast Company, author Jessica Bennett writes about the “persistent double standard” that “women face in the office every time we open our mouths. Use too many stereotypically ‘feminine’ speech patterns, and you risk falling victim to gender bias and undercutting your authority. But carefully prune those habits from the way you talk, and you not only sacrifice your own authenticity but risk being penalized by those same sexist biases as too ‘masculine’.
Bennett rightly points out that it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type of situation, what we call The Goldilocks Dilemma. But she’s wrong to conclude that “there is no right way to talk – especially if you want to sound like, you know, yourself.” Here’s why.
Authenticity Doesn’t Mean You Have Only One True Self
The idea is quite popular that being “authentic” is somehow essential to remaining comfortable, happy, and successful in our careers but authenticity is often misunderstood.
None of us has one true self, the kernel of our very being that defines who we are in all situations and for always.
We grow and change with new experiences, challenges, failures, and successes, and there are multiple aspects to ourselves at any given moment. Many of these aspects seem to contradict other aspects, but not one of them necessarily represents our “true authentic self.”
When it comes to how we communicate, we all have an articulate, confident side that’s forceful, succinct, decisive, and doesn’t rely on filler words (“um,” “er,” “ah,” “basically,” and “I mean”) to make our points. We also have a less hard-edged side that’s primarily concerned with building and maintaining relationships. This side may seek to soften the impressions we make by using phrases like “I’m sorry,” “you know,” and “I mean” – and Bennett is right to see that those verbal tics aren’t categorically bad. But, to suggest that only one of these two styles reflects our authentic voice misunderstands human nature.
Using Our Many Voices
And that’s all before we throw gender into the mix.
Because workplaces are so suffused with gender bias, women need to have both a forceful, decisive style and an inclusive style – and probably many others – at the ready. Just as we dress differently for different occasions, we need to call on different communication styles to accomplish our career objectives. So when Bennett dismisses a career coach’s advice on the grounds that she wants to “sound like” herself, she’s missing the point. Whatever she says and however she says it, Bennett will always sound like herself.
Just because a woman finds a particular communication style more comfortable doesn’t mean that style is more authentic, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s a more useful tool in the workplace. What’s more, being able to toggle among multiple communication styles doesn’t mean that women are pandering to sexist norms – it’s simply a skill that every effective leader needs to master to accomplish the objective at hand.
After all, the problem isn’t just how a professional woman talks, but the fact that she talks from inside a woman’s body, with all of the discriminatory stereotypes associated with being a woman. When a woman talks, she simply cannot escape talking “as a woman.” We believe that it certainly isn’t fair, but the reality is that it does matter how a woman talks. In some situations, she may be most effective if she’s articulate and direct; in other situations, if she uses filler words and says “I’m sorry” as a way to connect with other people. So, while Bennett is right that we need to focus on the gender stereotypes that hold women back, she’s wrong to suggest that a woman’s particular speech patterns don’t matter.
Overcoming the Goldilocks Dilemma
Women need to learn to speak in ways that avoid or overcome the discriminatory effects of the Goldilocks Dilemma. This requires different speech patterns in different situations, but once women are aware of these biases and how they operate, they can use a variety of communication techniques to avoid or overcome the discriminatory effects of gender bias. Consider the following:
- Women tend to say things like, “this may be a dumb idea but…,” or “I’m not an accountant but…” in an effort to soften what they fear will be an aggressive impression. Yet, such a speech pattern undercuts her competence and her conviction about her opinions. When a woman wants to be taken seriously, she must present her point of view articulately, forcefully, and unambiguously. That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t do so in a pleasant, inclusive, and engaging way. But it does mean she must leave no uncertainty as to her opinion.
- Gender stereotypes allow men to bark orders, issued directives, and demand results in direct, even harsh ways. This is an impossible communication style for women seeking to be seen as effective leaders in today’s gender-biased workplaces. A woman can be direct, but she cannot be effective if she is perceived as “bossy” and unconcerned about the feelings of the people with whom she is dealing.
- We communicate with not just our words we use but with our body language. Regardless of how articulate a woman is, if she speaks with her eyes looking down, her arms close to her body, her shoulders slumped, and her legs crossed, her message will be lost. People remember far more about how she presents herself than the words she uses.
Women don’t need to stop talking like women, and they certainly don’t need to start talking like men. But the surest way out of the Goldilocks Dilemma is for women to remember that authenticity does not require the same speech pattern in every situation.
Overcoming gender bias requires a variety of communication techniques, and we should never let the incorrect belief that we only have one authentic self from preventing us from using all of them.
This article originally appeared in FastCompany.