A reflection on what I’ve learned (and should now unlearn) about communication while working remotely as a female project manager in techFeatured

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 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, 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.
On a similar note. I struggled when I came back to Canada after living in Belgium. The Dutch are a lot more direct and blunt.People would find me quite rude and I would think to myself "I'm just expressing myself the same way a man would."We are trapped and enabled by the culture in which we live.
Interesting. What do you think about giving praise?
Great post! This resonated with me so much, I hadn't realised how many of these things I do without even noticing. I use to make a conscious effort to go through emails and remove 'fluff' (I think, I believe ect) might be time to start that again.
@EricaHerschorn - this is a very authentic view of the realities of being a female professional in 2021. Great post. I hold one theory around how to move away from women needing to appear overly happy, friendly and having to add fluff. My theory involves women taking a cue from men in how they support one another.Talking only from what I've seen and experienced in my career, men are much better about not holding grudges, not reporting one another to management for reprimand, not being cliquey or exclusionary, and just celebrating teams and accomplishments of others. I've got to be honest that some very bad experiences with other professional women make me feel like as a women I have to watch my back. When a women is short and to the point in her communications I have a PTSD-type response wondering if I somehow wandered into a territory where she feels threatened and will find a way to get me written up to knock me back down.
Hi @catherin124 thank you for the reply and the great feedback! I am sad to say I have definitely experienced something similar (not recently, but several years back). Beyond the individual, I think a lot of that has to do with company culture and what is acceptable in an organization vs. what is not.
Great post @EricaHerschorn! Everything you mentioned resonated with me and I don't think I was fully aware that I've always communicated in a more "kind and warm" way so I don't come across as bossy or know it all. I'm curious, are you now communicating more directly, and if so, what has been your colleagues r response?
Hi @TefiSaravia! Thanks for the response! I would say this is an ongoing work-in-progress for me. My first step has been sharing my ideas not as questions, but as the ideas they are, and not asking for validation after I've shared the idea. In terms of response from my colleagues, I can't say there has been a noticeable shift from my perspective, but perhaps the perception of my ideas is different.
Thanks for sharing :) I guess if it's not a negative response, it's a good response.
This was such an interesting read. Thank you!
I was told by a manager once that when I did presentations, I came across as someone who wanted to “teach” others... that I should be more “soft” and pitch my presentations in a way that didn’t seem like I thought I was “smarter” than others ... LOL I was waaaaay more “likable” than some of my male colleagues who always spoke their mind bluntly and some of them even used lots of sarcasm.... So.. that’s that 🙃 And I was an operations manager... my job was literally to optimize processes (!) Thank your for this post. I’m also a digital project manager in tech and remote work without never meeting some team members in person is SUPER HARD. And yes I use a lot of emojis and gifs ...
Thank you for sharing this! This was an interesting read for me as I recently got feedback from a female VP that I come off as too casual and bubbly. Her feedback was that this makesme seem like I am young and inexperienced (despite my education and years in the industry). This encouraged me to start working with a language coach. It's interesting to see that some of the advice listed in the sources in your post are the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do! For example, I laugh as a placeholder so smiling all the time is something I am NOT trying to do. Saying "I think" and "I believe" makes me seem like I have no idea what I'm doing. This is not the feeling I'd like to emanate when I'm trying to move up the management track.Sadly there is so much conflicting advice for women out there....
I know this is a reality but I hate that we have to spend so much time on how we are perceived instead of focusing on work itself. It's another burden taking up our mental power instead of solving the problem and keeping the playing field unfair.I spent the early part of my career learning how to soften my message and be likable. Now that I'm in a position of leadership I sometimes get feedback that I don't seem confident and I'm trying to unlearn those things. At times I just want to throw up my hands and say, "can we just focus on the substance of what I'm saying instead of policing my tone and delivery??"Also, I don't think the way men do it is necessarily better and something to absolutely strive for. There have been times I'd wished they'd moderated their tone and not been as authoritative or (overly) confident when they didn't have the facts/experience to back it up.
wow this really resonated with me. I also noticed that there's a big difference in east coast vs. west coast. working in NYC, people are very direct and straightforward in their communication styles. working on the west coast, being direct often gets misperceived as being harsh, negative, mean or bitchy. totally not the case! other transplants from the east coast have also noticed this. I'm trying to be more conscientious of how i deliver things and appreciate your tips for gentle suggestion.
I’ve experienced this also and remember this point being made in the book Lean In about acting as a comforting communal leader like a mother in order to succeed. It struck me and still strikes me as totally unnecessary. I think women would be a lot more comfortable around men if men fluffed up their language also, making opinion statements instead of ultimate judgements about what is and isn’t, what does and what doesn’t. I’d love to see women entering into an era of simply not taking the “be nicey nicey” advice. Sugar coatings are not authentic, they’re coatings we put on when what we so long for us to be seen.
Thank you for sharing this, I found this an incredibly interesting read. At the end you mention becoming less concerned with how you come across. How do you now ensure your ideas or contributions get buy-in from your team?
Great share Erica.I would like to add: when you have done some power personal-growth work you will then be in the business or getting people. You will begin to see that EVERYONE you meet is (unconsciously) feeling they are "not enough" and you speak to them from that distinction. This requires you doing some of your own personal work, learning the distinctions that are missing for you about really connecting with people and of course the powerful way of which you use language. How you show up, is about being highly related to others, and they can feel it in your presence. It's who you are being. It's not a role, its you being authentic and connected and present in a new way. A place you stand from in your life and who you are for others. You being to connect with them in a way that without words that has them feeling acknowledged for who they are. This is how we lead today, from a highly relatable way, and still honor the work agreements, etc... People need to feel cared for. Like they matter, authentically, not in a worklife surface way. Also, it is the language you use, the way you carry yourself and hold space for people so they feel loved and seen and appreciated by you. You make requests in ways they feel honored, respected, and that and feel significant and that they matter. And they feel seen and UNDERSTOOD for the human being that they are, and not just an employee. This is a learned skill. And if you want to be an extraordinary leader of people, all people, you must learn how to do this. This is not about learning techniques - this is YOU getting who YOU are, that you are not being, for yourself, and for others. And when you get clear about who you really are, and let go of your own "inner voice" that constantly tells you that you are "not enough" (not a good leader, partner, etc..) and you do the work you need to do on yourself - you will then be able to elevate the lives of these beings that work with you, and finally be the leader that you were meant to be. This is the role I play in the lives of leaders and all humans, everyday, all day long, and it is nothing less that extraordinary to witness this transformation. People finally becoming the confident, self-assured, powerful leaders they were meant to be. Happy to offer resources that may start you on this journey. In gratitude and love.