Katharine D’Amico, PhD, is Academic Director of Hybrid Global Excellence Executive MBA Programs at Esade

Here’s a shocking fact: during the average business meeting, 75% of talking is done by men. Of course, this isn’t just a matter of having more to say, but also of confidence. A lack of confidence may impact many women leaders because of the inextricable link between leadership and communication. The way you shape perceptions of competence is with powerful communication. So, how can professional women assert themselves, project confidence in the workplace, and benefit from perception management?

Women who were afraid to speak up during meetings said they thought they: a) didn’t have good ideas, b) didn’t want to appear too loud or aggressive, c) didn’t think on their feet, or d) were afraid of being wrong. As a result, many women opt to stay silent rather than risk saying something wrong. The problem is that this attitude conflicts with what many associate with leadership and success.

Conventional ideas of what success looks (and sounds) like

People often associate success with individuals who speak confidently, assertively, and with authority. A successful leader conjures up sounds of an assertive and commanding voice. Successful leaders are people who can network and socialize effortlessly. The sound of success may involve engaging conversations, laughter, and the buzz of connections being made at professional events or social gatherings. Although these conventional perceptions of success are subjective, there has been a prevalent stereotype that associates leadership and success with men.

This perception stems from gender stereotypes that portray women as nurturing, empathetic, and focused on maintaining harmonious relationships. These stereotypes have often been used to marginalize women’s potential for leadership positions.

And yet, the most effective leaders possess both communal and assertive traits. Traits such as empathy, collaboration, and the ability to build strong relationships are valuable in leadership, as they contribute to creating inclusive and supportive environments. Moreover, research has shown that diverse leadership teams, including those with gender diversity, outperform homogeneous groups. Different perspectives, experiences, and approaches enrich decision-making processes and lead to better outcomes.

Double bind and false dilemmas

Stereotypes and societal expectations can create a challenging environment in which women may feel the need to navigate a delicate balance when expressing their views. They may worry about being perceived as too assertive or aggressive, which can lead to self-censorship and a reluctance to speak up. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as the “double bind” or the “tightrope” for women in leadership, highlights the societal expectations placed on women to be both assertive and nurturing, confident but not overly aggressive. It can create a challenging and unfair dynamic where women may face more scrutiny and backlash for their communication style than their male counterparts. This is an important and nuanced issue regarding the workplace dynamics that women often face.

Coined by Gregory Bateson and popularized by the psychologist R.D. Laing, the double-bind theory shows how women get caught between two undesirable choices and face false dilemmas. Why are these dilemmas “false”? Because in reality it is not a question of choosing A or B. It is a question of A and B together. A false dilemma is an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available, excluding many other viable alternatives. More examples of false dilemmas include the idea that women need to be either driven, powerful, and focused or sweet, amiable pushovers. Easy to get along with or combative and confrontational. To be feminine and to lead.

What is linguistic style?

The key strategy to manage false dilemmas is to focus on how rather than what you say. The way we talk and listen differs from one person to the next and is deeply influenced by cultural experience, and perceptions are shaped through language. It is what Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, defines as linguistic style: a person’s characteristic speaking pattern. Everything that is said must be said in a certain way. This includes such features as directness or indirectness, pacing and pausing, word choice, and the use of such elements as jokes, figures of speech, stories, questions, and apologies.

In other words, linguistic style is a set of culturally learned signals by which we not only communicate what we mean but also interpret others’ meaning and evaluate one another as people. Research from Partners In Leadership confirms this finding: women above men still struggle to find their voice in the room. The good news is: the ability to manage perceptions to make us feel comfortable and empowered can be learned.

Adding muscle to language

The way we think influences the way we speak, but this influence also works the other way around. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think. Teaching people new perspectives through language changes their ability to discriminate A from B – in other words, teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking. For female leaders, it is not a question of changing their identity, but of adding muscle to their language.

Ultimately, it is essential to promote a culture that values and respects the contributions of everyone regardless of gender. By fostering an inclusive environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing their views without fear of judgment or negative consequences, we can break down the barriers that discourage women from speaking up and create a more equitable and diverse workplace. The most important voice you will ever hear is the voice inside your head. You are who you think you are.

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