Coaching professional women for the past eight years, and as a former corporate vice president myself, I’ve witnessed first-hand the communication challenges that block women from being heard, appreciated, respected, valued and promoted.
Women are not "men in skirts” ― women have different preferences, values, styles and communication approaches that often contribute to their feeling less than fully valued and accepted.
According to the fascinating book The Female Brain by Dr. Louann Brizendine, the differences between male and female brains contribute to significant differences in behavior and perception. "In the brain centers for language and hearing, for example, women have 11 percent more neurons than men,” Brizendine writes. "The principal hub of both emotion and memory formation ― the hippocampus ― is also larger in the female brain as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others …The female brain has tremendous unique aptitudes ― outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict. All of this is hardwired into the brains of women. These are the talents women are born with that many men, frankly, are not.”
I’ve observed that professional women often experience significant challenges in communicating powerfully, effectively and with command and authority, particularly when other desired outcomes (such as preserving relationships, ensuring equality and connection, defusing conflict, etc.) might be at risk.
Women face these five challenges to communicating powerfully to bring about positive results for their careers and their futures:
1. Not taking credit. Women are typically reluctant to stand up and take credit for what they’ve accomplished, achieved and initiated. They often say "we” did this or credit the team and other players rather than claiming "I” made this happen.Men are not as reluctant to state what they’ve accomplished in terms that make it clear who achieved the desired results and to put themselves in a "one-up” position. If you can’t speak powerfully and compellingly about your accomplishments, I guarantee no one else will. Check out Peggy Klaus’ great book Brag: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It.
2. Taking things personally. I’ve seen women (and have been guilty of this myself) ruminate on particular goings-on at work, taking things personally and experiencing them with deep emotionality rather than processing through the challenges analytically and neutralizing their emotions. I’m not suggesting women become less emotional over all. I’m recommending, in the workplace,women strive to critically examine what’s occurring around them from a more neutral, expansive and balanced perspective so that their responses can be as effective and empowered as possible, taking into account all key factors and influences.
3. Not negotiating effectively for what you deserve. Studies have shown men negotiate for salary, benefits, position and responsibility significantly more than women. One study revealed that 57 percent of men negotiate for their first salaries, while only 7 percent of women do. Much of women’s reluctance to negotiate and ask for what they want and deserve is influenced by their neurobiology and the inherent goals they have for communication, and by the punitive repercussions they’ve faced by asking. It’s vitally important to make a powerful case for being well-compensated, rewarded and valued for your contributions.What you want and deserve will not just fall in your lap.
4. Not challenging power. Challenging the ideas, initiatives or goals of people at higher levels of power and authority can be hard for anyone, but women especially struggle with speaking up. According to linguistics expert Deborah Tannen, "Men tend to be sensitive to the power dynamics of interaction, speaking in ways that position themselves as one up and resisting being put in a one-down position by others. Women tend to react more strongly to the rapport dynamic, speaking in ways that save face for others and buffering statements that could be seen as putting others in a one-down position. These linguistic patterns are pervasive ― you can hear them in hundreds of exchanges in the workplace every day.”
I believe this is due in part to the way women and men have been culturally trained, their neurobiology and because of the real backlash that many women have experienced in the workplace when they speak their minds and unabashedly go against those in the majority. (Check out the Heidi vs. Howard Roizen case study). Women cannot ascend to leadership roles if they don’t challenge others and the status quo. The question isn’t "Should I challenge?” but "How best can I challenge authority so that I am heard, understood and valued for my input?”
5. Projecting self-confidence and a powerful presence. Your body language, confidence and poise under fire can make or break your ability to advance and succeed in the workplace.We all have what I call "power gaps” ― areas in which we feel "less than” ― less capable, confident, courageous and contributive than we want to be. Women feel more shame and vulnerability about their gaps than men do.The key to greater professional and personal success is to uncover your power gaps and work with commitment to close them. Whatever you feel you are missing, endeavor to gain it, achieve it and claim it. If you need more knowledge or training, go out and get it. If you feel ashamed at a large error you made at work, don’t bury it; rectify it.
The quickest path to success is to own where you feel "less than” and strive to accept and appreciate yourself fully while taking positive steps to rebuild your confidence and legitimately bolster your sense of self worth. (To take control of your professional situation, take my free Career Path Self-Assessment.)
Which of these communication challenges resonates with you? What one step can you take today to close your "power gaps”?
Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.