When it comes to “please take me seriously” challenges, I hit the trifecta. I was 23 when we started our organization, so quite young to be in a senior position. I work for a charity, so many people automatically assume I don’t have the smarts to keep up in the “real” world. And I’m female.
Now, I never thought being female was relevant to anything. But when I was 25, an elder colleague took me aside at a conference. “You should step aside and let a man speak for your organization,” he said. “A girl doesn’t belong on the stage.”
He did me a favour by articulating, in no uncertain terms, how some people would perceive me. Lessons are rarely so clear.
Havard Business Review recently published a story describing differences between the way male and female executives speak. Anecdotally, it rings true. I certainly say “Maybe we could …” instead of “Here is my plan …”
But I don’t like the way HBR framed its handy translation chart. “Make your language more muscular,” the authors advise women. As if changing the words we use will change the way we are received. There is a built-in notion that, because men have had success speaking a certain way, women should copy this “correct” way.
The phrase “here is my plan” is only powerful if used by someone whose authority is accepted and unquestioned. It motivates people to act because an authority figure has issued a command. It is language used to reinforce centralized power, rather than distribute it to the group.
I don’t think women use “feminine” language because they don’t know how to talk muscular. I think they use it because it often works better for them.
If men don’t think you belong on the stage, they certainly don’t want your plan to succeed. They may even hope that it fails. In those circumstances, the worst thing you can do is claim sole ownership of an idea. Attributing it to the group may be the only way to get buy-in. Positioning yourself as a non-threatening contributor may be the only way to get your idea heard.
I’m not advocating for this. I just don’t think we should be confusing what “works” with what is “better” or what is “muscular” with what is “correct”.