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3 Workplace Communication Mistakes Every Woman in Science, Engineering and Technology Should Avoid
One thing I realized very early on in my career in research was that good, no make that excellent, communication skills were a necessity for a woman if she wanted to be taken seriously and get ahead. Back then scientific research was very definitely an ‘old boys’ playground and it was difficult to get your ideas heard or be taken seriously. In fact during my interview for my first full time job on returning to Canada my future boss said that, in his opinion, all women should stay at home and tied, barefoot and pregnant, to the kitchen sink. Needless to say that did not sit well with me and to this day I remain somewhat surprised I got the job after the response I fired back at him (fortunately there were two others on the interview committee).
So I went in to that job with the knowledge that there were still some somewhat antiquated ideas floating around the workplace. Luckily I had taken a communications course in university that had started me on a lifelong exploration of how people communicate and interact with each other, which has proven to be enormously useful throughout my career, not just in my first job. The ability to make ones’ points, be taken seriously and gain support for them is a skill that can be learned, along with many other communication based skills. Unfortunately many still do not recognize how important communication skills are to ones ability to influence and have an impact in the workplace, especially if you’re a woman and find it difficult to be taken seriously.
A major problem faced by many women in a male dominated workplace is that what we say may be perceived differently by men than what we intended. Three such mistakes in communication that women seem more prone to making than men are: using a question to introduce and idea instead of a statement; using words that minimize their achievements, and apologizing when it absolutely isn’t necessary.
The first mistake, using a question instead of a statement, is often used by women who don’t want to come across as too pushy or arrogant, so they express their ideas as questions. I understand this one well as I know I used to use it. Questions, however, are for when you need more information, such as ‘do they need the inspection completed before the end of the month to meet their construction time lines?’ Asking ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep some time available this month for last minute requests for inspections?’ when you really think it would be a good idea given past experience means you are turning control of the outcome, and ownership of the idea, over to someone else, usually a man, which results in less visibility for you and weakens your opportunities to be taken seriously.
In the future when you find yourself about to ask a question – stop and ask yourself – are you really after more information or clarification of someone’s opinion, or are you trying to not come across as too pushy with your ideas? If it is really your opinion, then express it as such, and if it would make you feel more comfortable, you can always soften the statement’s directness by asking them what their thoughts are on it afterwards.
A second communication mistake often made by women is to use words and phrases like “just, only, really nothing, got lucky, anybody could have done it” that minimize their efforts. Words and phrases such as these downplay your achievements and reduce your opportunities to increase your credibility and are usually taken at face value by your male colleagues (which may explain why they tend not to use them). If you’re at all like me it probably stems from being quietly told as a young child that it wasn’t nice to brag or be boastful, especially in front of your elders (read ‘superiors’ here for later in life!). It seems that women more than men may have received this admonishment, which may account for the fact that this communication faux pas is more prevalent for women than men (although not unheard of with men).
So the next time someone compliments you on a job well done or admires your work, don’t respond with “oh, it was nothing really”. Instead say “Thank you, I’m quite happy with the way it turned out as well.”. And if that still feels too much like boasting for you to be comfortable with, you can always share the credit with people who helped you develop your skills and abilities along the way, sort of like accepting an Academy Award (just don’t turn it into a long drawn out speech!).
The third mistake I mentioned happens far to often, apologizing when it isn’t necessary. I’ve had women tell me that they know they didn’t do anything wrong but they apologized anyway to avoid a confrontation. While this is noble of them it weakens their position and allows others to shirk their responsibility for what happened. Saying “I’m sorry we missed the deadline for the monthly summary report” when it was because your colleague failed to provide the necessary information to complete it lets him off the hook for his tardiness. Worse, it may even put you in a bad light if he repeats your apology to your superiors in a way that puts responsibility for the missed deadline squarely on your shoulders, as in “Jane says she’s sorry the report was late this month”.
If you find yourself about to apologize for something, pause first and make sure it requires an apology. If you have made a mistake that requires an apology, make it and then take action to correct the problem. In the example above, instead of apologizing turn it into a problem solving forum, identify bottlenecks and ask “what can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?”. This will help you gain a reputation as someone who is not only responsible for their own actions but also helps others solve their problems.
It’s tough enough for women to gain recognition and be successful in male dominated cultures, such as found in the majority of science, engineering, technology and trade industries, however eliminating these three workplace communication mistakes and becoming a stellar communicator can go a long way in helping them, and you, move forward with confidence and ease.
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