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October 5, 2016 / Molly Moseley

Leader or bossy? The impact of gendered communication in the workplace

Gendered communication stereotypes on display in the presidential debate. (NBC/GBM)

A male colleague asserts himself at a meeting and everyone discusses his potential as a future leader within the company. A female colleague asserts herself the next week in a similar manner, however, and people consider her cold and too bossy.

We all would like to think there’s an even playing field at work, but what we’ve been taught about perception, communication and gender proves that’s not the case. Even well-meaning professionals subconsciously make judgments that are highly influenced by a person’s sex.

Gendered communication is becoming a hot topic with the recent movement toward equality in the workplace, and more women are striving to be notable leaders, get that promotion and break the glass ceiling. That means being confident and speaking out is essential to getting noticed.

Both men and women are guilty of making judgments based on gendered communication. Just look at the presidential election. Clinton is often criticized for her inability to show emotion with political pundits telling her to be more personable, show flashes of humor and smile more — but none of that fake-smile garbage! And just as many women criticize her as men.

Another example: Women are negotiating as often as men, but often hear negative feedback when they do. Women who negotiate for a promotion or compensation increase are 30 percent more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are bossy, too aggressive or intimidating, found the Women in the Workplace 2016 study released last week from McKinsey & Company LeanIn.Org.

Bossy is a word that is particularly searing to many women. Sheryl Sandberg has deemed it “the other B word.” In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Sandberg recalls accounts when she was called bossy, and just like many other women can attest, criticism starts at a young age.

“When I was in junior high and running for class vice president, one of my teachers pulled my best friend aside to warn her not to follow my example,” Sandberg wrote in the essay. “‘Nobody likes a bossy girl,’ the teacher warned. ‘You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.'”

Scientific research shows that men and women are often very different in regard to how they speak, listen, express emotion and feel appreciated. That means whether you like it or not, many stereotypes aren’t inherently wrong. Where we can inject much-needed change is in how we respond to language and communication in the workplace, especially when it bucks the norm.

Are you treating all of your colleagues equally or do your responses create tension and bias? Being aware and thoughtful about how you react will help break gender and cultural norms to level the playing field for everyone at work (and at home, for that matter).

It’s particularly important for managers to be aware of the nuances of gendered communication so they can effectively lead teams and drive evolution. Check out this Forbes article that does a great job at summarizing common gender communication blind spots.

Remember, your team is always watching you. Make sure you’re leading by example.