Even though working remotely is new to many people in this era of COVID, I have been very fortunate to have been working remotely on and off for the better part of five years. During this time, I have learned (over and over) how important it is to focus on how your communication comes across to your colleagues and clients (regardless of intent), and how as women, our communication is looked at through a slightly different lens than our male counterparts.Let me tell you a story: back in 2012, I was a few years into my career as a project manager in tech and had just started at a new company. My client was a multinational car brand; we were managing their global site as well as many of the regional sites. Since my clients were based in Hong Kong and our overlap of hours was minimal (and this was also before Zoom calls were common!), much of our communication was handled over email. Since I was taking over a lot of responsibilities from my superior, (a male), he had sent me some of his email communications from previous interactions so I could copy them and re-use the content to ensure a smooth and seamless transition. Well, I learned very quickly that I could not copy his emails verbatim, as they were short, serious, and very “to the point”. I was told several times that I was coming across very rude and abrupt, and that I needed to “fluff up” the emails a bit more. I spoke to a female mentor of mine, who told me that, yes, it is unfair, but yes, this is how it is. You are a woman in a digital space working with men, and they will expect you to be warmer and friendlier in emails. And don’t forget the smiley faces.This was definitely an eye-opening interaction for me. And since then, (here we are nine years later), how we come across in our communication hasn’t changed much, but it definitely has evolved with Zoom, Slack, and (now very passé communication medium) email.Verbal communicationAs a sociology major, it was my instinct to look for scientific studies that confirm my experience. In one study by Judi Brownell dated April 1993, she writes:
The image of confidence--and the resulting credibility--are developed almost exclusively through communication behavior. Women's speech differs from men's in significant ways. Unfortunately, most of the speech characteristics typical of women's style are those associated with powerlessness in work environments. For instance, women are more likely to use qualifiers, phrases like "I think" or "It seems to me." (18) Women's speech is also characterized by tag questions; that is, phrases at the end of sentences that make statements into questions: "I think the three-day-weekend package is the way to market that event, don't you?"(19) Women speak with more of an upward inflection, which makes statements sound like questions.
Over the years, I learned the art of “gentle suggestion” instead of coming off as authoritarian, or demanding. To ensure I come across more gently, I will oftentimes formulate my thoughts and ideas as questions, and begin them with “I believe”, also asking for confirmation at the end. As a woman who has had to “manage up” and oftentimes in a space where I am not an expert, I have found this to be an efficient way to get my thoughts across, gain acceptance, without coming across as a know-it-all or worse, “bossy”. What is also evident is that women have been using this strategy for at least 28 years, and probably longer. Reflecting on this, frankly, it makes me feel uneasy and fairly uncomfortable. On one hand, I know this strategy has worked well for me. I am well-liked by my colleagues, and am able to present unique ideas without coming across too harshly (something I fear, and I imagine other women fear too). On the other hand, I wouldn’t expect my male colleagues to approach sharing their ideas in a similar way, I would expect for them to share their thoughts confidently. I think that this is something that I need to UNLEARN: I, and other women, should feel more confident to be opinionated; that is why we are in the room! We should be opinionated, as we are hired as experts in our designated field.Non-verbal communicationWith the advent of video conferencing, non-verbal communication, now, can be just as important as both verbal and written communication in the workplace. In an article written in the American Journal of Business Education in 2010, entitled Communication Skills For Women In The World Of Corporate Business: Getting It Right And Moving Up!, Priscilla Berry importantly reminds women:
SMILE: Whether you are talking with a friend, family member, your children, your boss, your employees or someone on the phone, remember to keep a smile on your face.
Why are women always reminded to smile? We are expected to be warm, kind, inviting, and happy at all times. Even in a stressful situation on a Zoom call, I remind myself frequently to keep a pleasant smile on my face so that I come across as confident and happy. Would a male colleague ever be expected to smile as much as we are expected to? Frankly, I don’t believe that to be the case. Smiling on calls, though, is assumed to be the neutral state for women, and if they have a serious facial expression, they may be accused of having the dreaded R.B.F. (“resting-bitch-face”). Why, if we are not smiling, are we just naturally assumed to be “bitches”?Written communicationWomen, in their written communication (as I was very much informed of back in 2012), are expected to be warm and kind, and shouldn’t be too “harsh” or straight-to-the-point. We also are expected to use exclamation points and smiley faces to convey this as well.Now, with the remote-first culture and informal / asynchronous communication becoming so prevalent in the workplace, with tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, I have become more “lax” with the formality in my writing. With that said, while chatting with a female colleague of mine (a director), we discussed how we worried about coming across as “unprofessional” if we used too many emojis or were too “informal” in our written communication.Why should we worry so much about how we come across? We want to come across as professional, knowledgeable, and warm. In chatting with my aforementioned colleague more and more, I’ve begun to reflect that I need to stop being so concerned with how I appear to other people, and feel more confident in who I already am. I am a woman in tech who has moved my way up the corporate ladder for the last 11+ years in my chosen profession. And now, I’m lucky enough to have joined a company where directness is not only a requirement, but also a key organizational value. Note to self: I am extremely experienced and knowledgeable. Hell yeah I’m opinionated. Damn right, I’m bossy.Erica Herschorn is a Technical Project Manager at Shogun, a remote company that values women in tech and focuses on diversity & inclusion. Shogun Page Builder is a drag-and-drop page building application for e-commerce stores. Read more about how Shogun builds their remote team at https://getshogun.com/remote-life/the-3-pillars-of-building-a-remote-team.Sources mentioned:Brownell, Judi. "Communicating with credibility: the gender gap." Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 2, Apr. 1993, p. 52+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A14362787/AONE?u=tplmain&sid=AONE&xid=5bdb3f21. Accessed 20 Nov. 2020.Berry, Priscilla. (2010). Communication Skills For Women In The World Of Corporate Business: Getting It Right And Moving Up!. American Journal of Business Education (AJBE). 3. 10.19030/ajbe.v3i1.376.