(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in Academia)
I get so frustrated when I see the female students and colleagues I work with sabotage themselves and undermine their own authority and effectiveness because of an inability to be assertive. What is assertiveness, you ask? The definition of assertiveness for women in academia includes the confidence to state opinions clearly and firmly, to back them up in the face of disagreement, to make strong and steady eye contact, to use emphatic hand gestures, to display calm and confident body language while speaking and listening.
Women I work with as students AND as colleagues routinely display the opposite of assertiveness–instead of confidence, they express insecurity, instead of calm, they display anxiety, instead of eye contact they look to the side, instead of emphatic hand gestures they play with their hair and fiddle with their clothes, instead of calm and confident body language, they droop their shoulders, slouch in their chairs, tie themselves into cross-legged, cross-armed knots until they occupy half the space to which they’re entitled.
Why does this happen? Women are trained from birth to self-effacement and deference. Women defer to men, in professional settings, across the board. I would have believed that in 21st century America this was no longer the case… until I started observing the speaking patterns and body language of the young women in the university setting, and beyond that, my tenured colleagues in my departments.
If you are a woman and want to test this supposition, I offer this assertiveness training exercise. The next time you are in conversation with a man, in a professional setting, and both of you start speaking at the identical moment, will yourself to NOT give in, to keep speaking, until he stops, and your voice prevails.
I’d wager money you can’t do it. If you can, you’re going to be surprised at the effort of will it takes. At how unnatural it feels. At how aggressive it seems.
Because women defer to men in professional settings the vast majority of the time. They default to smiling and nodding. They default to agreeing. They default to ego-soothing (“just following up on what YOU said….”). They default to cooing little supportive noises (“mm hmmm, mm hmmm”). They default to that odd upward lilt, an epidemic among younger Americans, that transforms every statement into an insecure sounding question that trails off into uncertain silence. They default to the big eyed, tilted head listening pose that you might recognize from your puppy. They default to silence in the place of direct confrontation. (Doubt my word on this? Read this amazing post on women in the workplace by body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, recently published on the Washington Post website.)
Women don’t exhibit these behaviors because they’re incompetent or stupid. On the contrary, these are the behaviors that little girls learn in their families and that work for them in countless environments growing up. And these behaviors transmogrify in the domestic sphere as women grow older. Women don’t necessarily defer to their husbands and domestic partners in the same way.
But in the professional world, where influence and power derive from individual authority, expertise, and confidence…. women’s learned domestic behaviors of agreement, soothing, indirection, and non-confrontation fail them badly.
Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:
1) Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.
2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively.
3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”
4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.
5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized manner that is so filled with caveats and apologies, that it muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish.
The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.
For many years I’ve led a workshop, Yes You Can: Women and Success in Academia. We review the patterns of speech and body language I talk about here. And then in the second half, we do role playing. My attendees dread the role playing. But about 3 minutes into it, they start to grasp just how deeply embedded are the unconscious speech and body practices that have consistently undermined their verbal assertiveness, expressions of authority and entitlement, and physical command of space. By the time they have each struggled painfully to get through the following three sentences, with no prevarication, excuses, second-guessing, or caveats, “I WILL APPLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL IN XXX. I WILL SPECIALIZE IN XX. I PLAN TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL XXX,” they grasp just how deeply and profoundly they have been denying their own voices.
We follow that up with many other professional scenarios, including disagreeing while maintaining steady eye contact and a steady voice, and the art of the firm handshake. By the end, attendees are always a combination of dazed, dismayed, inspired, outraged, shocked, amused, and totally fired up to test their new skills out on the first guy they meet. They report back incredible results.
If you’re a woman who struggles to make herself heard, you’re not alone. If you write to me, Karen, at firstname.lastname@example.org, I will send you a Top Ten Tip sheet from my Yes You Can Workshop. Get in touch. We should talk.