ATTENTION WOMEN: Weak, apologetic language at work is holding us back

I am a staunch feminist. Proudly vocal about gender equality. Career driven. Financially independent. And acutely aware of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism that continues to plague modern society – in the workplace, the media and family life.

So you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that I don’t always write like the self-assured businesswoman I consider myself to be.

And it took a man to point it out.

It was very late one Monday night when I drafted an email to a client explaining that, despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to complete a task within his self-proclaimed tight time-frame. And, even though I had said in advance that I would almost certainly need more time, I still felt compelled to:

Apologise profusely
Justify myself
Explain my reasons (in great detail)
Ask permission for more time

What on earth was I thinking?

My client wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in all those boring details… when all he needed to know was one simple thing: his deadline could not be met.

Of course, all this was crystal clear to my husband who urged me to replace my ramble with a single sentence. And upon reflection, I can now see why the pitfalls of my original approach were so obvious to him and not to me:

  • He was removed from the situation and not as emotionally invested as me
  • He is a MAN

This got me thinking…

Are women inclined to use weaker, more apologetic language in the workplace than men? Is it possibly even self-deprecating?

So I did some quick research. And within a few minutes my hunch was confirmed.

According to Leadership Coach and Strategist Ellen Petry Leanse, women are 3 to 4 times more likely to use the word ‘just’ in their emails and conversations at work.

‘I am just wondering if you are available to discuss…’

‘Just following up on that report…’

‘I’m just writing to let you know that…’

So what’s wrong with ‘just’?

As Leanse explains, it’s a permission word. An apology for interrupting. Or a shy knock on a door before asking a question we have every right to ask.

So why is that? Why do women feel the need to undermine the importance of their own communication? I suspect we’re scared of being labelled overbearing, controlling – or god-forbid bossy. And so we overcompensate.

But here’s the more important question: What’s the consequence for women who use this weak, hesitant language at work? My hypothesis? Slower, fewer and less substantive responses to our requests – and potentially, lower levels of respect from our colleagues and clients. (And trust me, women don’t need extra help when it comes to subtle sexism and gender inequality in the workplace.)

However, using the word ‘just’ is not the only writing crime women are more likely to commit. Here are some more email writing habits that could compromise our credibility at work.

1. Overuse of qualifiers

Words such as ‘might’, ‘probably’, ‘maybe’, ‘somewhat’ and ‘possibly’ weaken your message and reveal a lack of confidence in what you’re saying.

If you don’t believe what you’re writing, why should your reader?

Before: You might want to reconsider our financial targets as I think they are probably a little too low.

After: I recommend we increase our financial targets.

2. Unnecessary apologising and over-justification

Although apologies are appropriate on certain occasions, think twice next time you want to use the word ‘sorry’.

Do you really have something to be sorry for? Or are you simply asking a colleague to perform a task that falls comfortably within their job description?

Before: I am sorry for the inconvenience as I know you are very busy, but can you please pop by my workstation when you are next available as my computer seems to be quite slow today.

After: My computer is very slow today. Can you please come to my workstation today to have a look?

And be careful not to apologise for something that’s outside your control – or for not fulfilling an unrealistic request:

Before: I am so sorry but I wasn’t able to meet your deadline. I had too many other commitments and I needed to get up early in the morning to drive to Geelong. I tried my best but just couldn’t manage it. I hope you understand.

After: As suspected, I wasn’t able to meet your deadline. I will call you tomorrow morning to discuss next steps.

3. Asking superfluous questions. Seeking permission.

Questions such as ‘is that okay with you?’ and ‘am I making sense?’ show a lack of confidence in your own opinions, suggestions and accomplishments.

If you need to ask whether or not you’re making sense, then you either already know your email is confusing – or you are revealing that you’re unsure of yourself and your ability to communicate effectively.

Before: ‘Would you like to see a summary of my research? You may find it quite surprising.’

After: ‘Here is a summary of my research. It contains many surprising findings, including…’

4. Overly polite and waffly

What’s wrong with being polite?, I hear you ask.

Nothing. But many of us take it too far, which can dilute the core message we’re trying to communicate.

Before: I hope you are well and that you had a really great weekend. I am just writing about our catch up next Friday and was wondering if we could possibly reschedule to the following week? Is that okay with you?

After: I have a conflict next Friday and need to reschedule our meeting. Does the following week suit you?

So, c’mon, ladies. Let’s stop undermining ourselves. It’s time to ditch these words and phrases from our emails and earn ourselves the respect in the workplace we know we deserve. And, in the meantime, if you’d like to improve your writing confidence, learn about our public business writing workshop today.