There are phrases that women use (allegedly) that are holding them back in the workplace and this app is meant to prompt them to evaluate what they are saying and come up with a better i.e. more assertive, phrase to replace it.
When words like “sorry” or “just” are typed into a Gmail they are underlined for correction with a warning such as “Using ‘sorry’ frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership” or ” ‘Just’ demeans what you have to say“.
So far so good you might think. let’s discourage the use of “undermining words“. But no, it’s attracted the wrath of feminists and journalists such as New York business editor Alexandra Frean (writing in The Times).
“Sorry, but women don’t need to be told how to write” she says. This is just part of the trend offering spurious advice on women’s speech patterns which are supposed to empower women but risk doing the opposite – in her opinion.
Now Frean is an American and from her on-line presence seems a familiar sight at conventions and the like and probably one of the “lean in” brigade. But is she right?
She refers to women using “upspeak“, which makes every sentence sound like a question, or “vocal fry” when their voice descends to a croak instead.
And then she asks where is the evidence that women do these things more often than men?
Well I remember a speaker from a British university presenting on this very subject at an international leadership conference in Germany a couple of years ago where she presented such evidence.
And from my experience as an executive coach working with senior women this is not uncommon. Maybe it’s that we Brits are a bit less forward than our American cousins.
She then argues that woman might be using these qualifiers, not to display weakness but as persuaders and conciliators.
She also refers to research at Rutgers university that found that women who spoke confidently about their strengths were seen as less attractive and less employable.
She’s not the only critic of the app. Professor of linguistics at the University of California in Berkeley Robin Lakoff says that telling women how to talk discourages them from speaking. “I know the developers of the app would say, in all sincerity, that they are trying to help women by telling us how to talk, but these hints never make anyone a better speaker; their effect is to make women less articulate because they suppress our spontaneity and make us embarrassed about whatever we do”
She says whether a word is used correctly depends on the context and there are times when saying sorry is OK and other times when it is inappropriate. These kinds of words (or discourse markers) have the ability to soften what a speaker is saying or make difficult conversations more comfortable. They also make people feel better and able to get along, something she says women are better at than men.
So arguments on both sides – and all from women, including the person who designed the app is Tami Reiss who describes how it came about here.
In short she was inspired by a number of women coaches and leaders including Tara Mohr, a leadership coach and author of “Playing Big” a book that exhorts every working women to “find your voice, your mission, your message“. (seen here on YouTube
- It’s an unconscious habit that women have picked up from other women
- Women who use these phrases want to appear likeable and worry about coming over as aggressive or arrogant. (I posted about women’s dilemma some time ago in “Too nice or too bossy” in regard to leadership).
- The third reason is the inner critic we all have which creates self-doubt (and gives rise to imposter syndrome, something else I posted about earlier)
Mohr says the feedback she has had from people following her recommendations has been positive and her clients report getting faster replies to their e-mails and having their requests taken more seriously.
Mohr also takes a strong view about women coming out of 2,000 years of oppression! According to her women have a lot of work to do, both unlearning and learning, to be able to fully embrace the freedoms that women now have.
Given the rewards that most corporate leaders receive these days (an average of over £3million plus bonuses) you might think this is a stupid question when the average wage is around £27,200 ($41,840).
However Roger Jones, a consultant, says ‘Leaders’ unconscious personal fears affect their performance, that of their team, and that of their company‘ according to Carly Chynoweth’s column in the Sunday Times business section.
The number 1 fear, according to the Academy of Chief Executives, is the fear of being found out – or imposter syndrome.
Other fears include worrying about being able to repeat past successes, not living up to past successes in a family business, and losing friends as they get promoted (did no-one tell them it can be lonely at the top?).
These fears can lead to bad decision-making and a loss of perspective. They may also result in poor inter-personal behaviours such as rudeness, problems with anger management, and lack of consistency with their teams.
Unfortunately for the business such behaviours can be emulated by junior staff who think its OK to do it because the CEO does it.
60% of the leaders questioned in Jones’ research (published in the HBR) said their executive teams were affected by fear, that there was an absence of honest conversations, excessive politicking, and a willingness to tolerate bad behaviour.
Executive search companies say they see these behaviours with newly promoted executives at second or third tier. A partner at one of them believes that the growth of psychometric testing might eventually identify those with problematic traits so they can be dealt with where possible (The Hogan series of psychometrics includes on which identifies elements of the dark side triad i.e. sociopathy, narcissism, and machiavellinism).
Jones is also optimistic. “Most leaders can manage their fears. Those who are self-aware are more understanding of what dysfunctional behaviours they may have and they can try to prevent them happening”.
One of the most effective approached is helping leaders develop their emotional intelligence – from improving self-awareness and self-control to managing relationships better.
Of course a lot depends on the culture of the organisation. If your company has an open and helping culture where feedback is freely and honestly exchanged some of these issues might never arise.
And there is some evidence that CEOs who are more guilt-prone can make better leaders.
Then we had the research finding that said that to make a team more intelligent – simply add more women.
But the question is whether or not women like working in teams?
Two academic economists (and have you noticed how economists are trespassing on research topics more typically associated with psychologists) have published results of an experiment in the Economic Journal.
They found that in competitive tasks 80% of men chose to do it as individuals compared to just under 30% of women (they were equally able on the tasks). They called this the “gender competition gap” and found that it shrank by more than half when the only option was to compete in teams. Then 67% of men and 45% of women chose to compete.
Previous research has shown that men prefer to compete more than women even when they are equally able to do the task. The economists, Andrew Healey and Jennifer Pate, say that it is the environment which is important and changing that can narrow the gender competition gap.
They point out that there are few women CEOs of FTSE100 companies and think that if the emphasis was shifted away from “testosterone-fuelled gladiatorial-style competition” to an environment that focusses on their team-working ability, things could change in favour of women.
They also point out that men will apply for jobs for which they are under-qualified whilst women do the opposite and if selection or competition was based on teamwork more women and fewer men might apply.
I posted on this following the publication of a management survey which showed that people trusted female CEOs more than male ones to get their company out of recession and save jobs.
But women suffer more than men from “imposter syndrome” and are therefore less likely to apply for jobs unless they are highly confident they can do them, whereas men are more likely to overestimate their capability and apply regardless.
And that despite years of anti-discrimination legislation and diversity training, and women generally doing better than men at university.
But in a widely reported survey of 3,000 people by UKjobs.net in 2010, three-quarters of the men interviewed said they preferred a male boss – and so did two-thirds of the women!
Male bosses were seen as more straight forward, better at “steering the ship“, more focussed on the long-term vision and less likely to have hidden agendas.
Female bosses were criticised for having mood swings and bringing personal problems to work, being overly competitive, and spending too much time on their appearance.
Women on the other hand were considered better at delegating, at giving praise, and at listening, so it wasn’t all bad news. Nevertheless the majority of people seem to prefer male bosses.
This is not the kind of thing that goes down well in politically correct circles of course and you can imagine what Harriet “Harperson” would make of it. Several columnists also got their knickers in a twist with Barbara Ellen in the Guardian saying women who said these thing should be ashamed of themselves; “We’re doomed if most women want a male boss“.
She does however make a valid point; “the boss thing is not a gender issue – it is a personality issue“. I posted on this a while ago asking; “Do you have what it takes to be a leader?” and I have also had a go at so-called Alpha Males in the past.
I also wonder just how much influence Emotional Intelligence (EI) is having on the current crop of managers. Women are more at risk of stress in high pressure jobs it seems and also can’t afford to be too nice as more aggressive women will compete with them – a point made in the survey about women managers over-compensating. So they are not seen as managing their emotions – one of the core competencies of EI.
On the other hand the positives that women were recognised for in the survey related to other EI competencies eg empathy and relating to others, yet these strengths were disregarded in favour of what might be seen as the less flexible (in management style), straight-ahead approach that male managers are perceived to have.
So what is going on? Do women really prefer to work for men? Some said that they thought they could be a better manager than their present female bosses so why would they rather work for man? Is it “imposter syndrome“, believing they are not deserving, because I don’t see assertiveness being a problem amongst women these days?
More recently a survey in America confirmed this tendency. A survey of legal secretaries found that, although almost half had no preference either way, not one of the 142 questioned actually had a preference for working for a female partner.
Another informal survey found that almost 7 out of 10 men said they preferred to work for a man. Even more women (3 out of 4) said they preferred to work for a man. Only a third of men and a quarter of women said they preferred to work for a woman.
See the full article on these surveys.
Originally posted in SGANDA in 2010
And while it’s usually female leaders who suffer most from “imposter syndrome” – and some women might argue that many men lack the self-awareness to even think they might not be up to the job – that’s not necessarily true any more. Amelia Hill in The Observer (2010) revealed that about 50% of men feel anxious most of the time – especially around women – and most often at work.
HAS ANYTHING CHANGED IN THE LAST 5 YEARS SINCE I FIRST WROTE THIS POST?
“Feeling like a fraud“, was the heading for an article on Imposter Syndrome in the Psychologist (Vol 23 No 5 May 2010). The author describes it as having 3 components:
- you feel that other people have an inflated perception of your capabilities,
- you worry about being “found out”, and
- you attribute your success to external factors such as” being in the right place at the right time”.
This condition may typically take hold when you are starting a new job and worrying about making a good impression. I have seen this often when working with executives coaching them through their first 100 days.
It seems almost everyone can experience the feeling of being incompetent at times and comparing themselves with others they consider better performers doesn’t help. They might be better examining their own feelings about being successful and why they might self-sabotage.
When I first wrote this male confidence was apparently at a low and with no strong real-life role models men were resorting to fictional characters, lucky charms, lucky socks, lucky pants, and alcohol according to an article in The Guardian.