When I was growing up, I was always the quiet one who would rather finish a huge project completely solo to avoid communicating with my classmates. This is the polar opposite to the me that graduated college and grad school: an outspoken, caring, driven and witty(ish) woman who has no problem calling people out when necessary…except, that is, at work.
When I started my first “real” job, I found myself in a completely new world: Marketing.
You see, in college I studied literature and then earned a master’s degree in library and information sciences (yes, it’s a real degree). To generalize broadly, these are two areas where, at their most interactive, I might find myself working quietly with patrons. Marketing, as most people know, is pretty much the exact opposite.
The ‘me’ who prided herself on open communication suddenly became withdrawn, and I found myself in a situation where I was the manager of the writing team, but – being one of the few females and the youngest in the office – I had no voice. It was challenging, but I was left with the understanding that I needed to make sure there were no lapses in communication that could detract from my work.
What surprised me most about this experience, however, was the fact that so many of my awesome female friends experienced similar situations. They all had similar feelings of anxiety and dread when it came to communication and negotiation in the workplace.
Time and time again, the story repeated itself in conversations. Even a dear friend whose communication style I deeply admire was having problems asserting herself in her teaching position in South Korea. Another friend, a graphic designer who worked with the same company for five years, was given a minuscule $0.25 raise when she was promoted to head designer. Not to mention she would constantly overhear the men in her office laughing over problematic jokes about women.
How are we supposed to comfortably communicate in our offices, especially if we’re the minority?
The Communication Block
The study, “Voice Matters: Buffering the Impact of a Negative Climate for Women in Science,” by Settles et. al., researched the concept of how the women’s work environment impacts their job satisfaction – and whether or not having a “voice” at work improved their satisfaction, even in a negative environment.
Spoiler: Women who perceived that they had more voice report greater job satisfaction. In fact, Settles et al. states that “even women in negative and sexist climates should feel more included and hopeful when they experience the possibility of voice.”
So what does this mean? Women, understandably, feel more comfortable when they have a voice, even if their work environment – for lack of a better word – sucks. Armed with this knowledge, there are a few tactics we can use to better advocate and represent ourselves in the workplace.
The Way We Can Undermine Ourselves
Have you ever, like, just had a really quick question? It’s no big deal, but did that make sense?
One of the biggest ways that women, especially young women, can undermine their communication at work is something called buffering.
Every time we buffer a request with a “sorry,” “just,” or “really quick,” we are undermining ourselves. And for what? I’m the operations manager of a successful reputation management company, and I shouldn’t be apologizing for following up on why a piece of content is well past its due date.
Now, women in the office have to overcome a lifetime of “being polite.” There’s even a Chrome application that literally removes the ever-minimizing “just”s and “I’m sorry”s out of your emails. Hey, there really is an app for everything.
Self-Advocating in the Office and Supporting Other Women
It may not always be possible to have a mentor at work, but we have to actively work toward building more voice in our offices.
I’m 25 and the youngest in my office now, and I’m also the only female in the company — so I found myself buffering my communications and using a lot of smiley faces. Now, I’m trying to actively take note of the way my male coworkers interact (unapologetically), and I’m learning not to say “sorry” at the first sign of tension.
Also, if you find yourself negotiating your responsibilities or salary, practice your pitches — and remember that men are traditionally more comfortable with self-promotion and broadcasting their perceived value. Asking for your worth is absolutely an uncomfortable part of workplace communication, but it’s one that we must get comfortable with.
Come equipped with numbers and notes. It’s a sad reality that we have to struggle with being seen as emotional versus professional, but aiming toward straightforward communication is a step in the right direction.
Break The Habit Now
In this new age of #metoo and movements aimed at empowering women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, the time to break the habit is now.
It’s scary and daunting, but communication is key for the betterment of your own work experience. Even though we live in a day and age when female CEOs feel the need to invent a male founder to be heard within their own company, if we work on voicing our own perspectives, we can actively increase our own overall well being at work.