Author Adele Bovard is a consultant and lead facilitator for Restorative Justice Education based in Colorado and is certified in Restorative Justice Leadership by the Center for Restorative Justice University of San Diego.
While the Deputy Superintendent Syosset Central Schools, I had the opportunity to present to the NYSAWA Long Island Affiliate on women in leadership and the power of purposeful communication.
The premise of my presentation was what we say, and how we say it, impacts how we think about ourselves and how we are perceived as both individuals and leaders. Words and expressions can impact whether our great ideas and initiatives are realized and receive the recognition they deserve. In an organization, our words in support of other women leaders can also elevate their abilities and ideas, and significantly influence the direction of the organization.
A brief history: research reveals that unlike many boys and men, women are enculturated from young ages to avoid strong expressions of feelings. We often qualify our great ideas with requests for affirmation and permission (“Is this something you think will work?”) and may even be rewarded when speaking and expressing ourselves in the “right” way (think “polite” and “deferential.”)
In other words, we make sure that we don’t articulate too clearly, sing too loud or shine too bright.
From childhood, most girls also learn that sounding too sure of themselves can make them unpopular with their peers. Confident girls run the risk of being tagged as “bossy.” Now, when you are the boss, this would seem like a good way to describe who you are and what you have achieved. Instead, it remains a pejorative and a put down. It is also rare that the same term is used to describe a confident man who is owning their power and position.
Researchers refer to this as “linguistic discrimination” based on gender.
The unintended consequences of being too polite
Research has shown that comments based on gender and lessons learned in childhood can have significant and lasting effects—carrying over into our adult lives, personally and professionally. Some examples of how what we say may be interpreted—and hold us back—include:
- We apologize before lending our voice or offering our ideas (for example: “[insert your great idea here], but I’m no expert at this.”) Statements such as this can lead others to believe the speaker lacks authority and isn’t worthy of consideration. Learn how to stop apologizing for our truths and good ideas and become more assertive in this video talk with Edwina Dunn, founder, and JoAnn Lauterbach, communication specialist, of The Female Lead.
- We avoid talking about ourselves or our accomplishments in a clear voice.
- We find ourselves sharing credit with “we” rather than using “I” statements appropriately with supervisors because “I” seems too self-promoting. This causes some managers to conclude the speaker hasn’t achieved much and doesn’t deserve to be tapped for more hefty projects or deserve promotion.
The numbers don’t lie when it comes to leadership in education. Consider this:
- While nearly three-quarters of all schoolteachers in New York are women, these numbers drop significantly when considering higher levels of school leadership.
- Currently, women hold just 27% of school superintendent positions, 60% of elementary principal positions and 32% of secondary school principal positions in New York state. These numbers are substantially lower for women of color.
By far, the language we and others choose and use isn’t the only factor influencing women’s access, promotion and leadership. But raising our own awareness on this topic, and making a dedicated effort to consider our own words and check and correct those used by others when they are inequitable, can be a great place to start.
Strategies for stronger communication
Making the shift from the use of gendered and loaded language is both an inside job and one we need to come together to change. In Becoming Dangerous Women: Embracing Risk to Change the World, author Pat Mitchell writes that “advocating for each other is how we change the power paradigm.”
Some ways we can tackle this include:
- Knowing your truth, then speaking it—firmly and confidently, without apology.
- Telling your own story.
- Amplifying each other’s voices and stories.
A 2019 Vox article details how women in the Obama White House came together to challenge gender bias by amplifying the voices, ideas, efforts and successes of each other, leaving no question about where credit and position was due.
“When President Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women complained of having to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored,” writes Vox author Emily Crockett.
“So [women] staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
“ ‘We just started doing it and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,’ said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.”
Changing the power paradigm: one word at a time
What would it be like to level the playing field—in terms of words and perceptions—for women and men? I believe it would leave us all a lot more time to do the good work we have in us and shine as brightly as we should.
Some questions I leave you with:
- What might happen if we began sharing stories of our talents and triumphs?
- What might that movement look like?
- How can we work individually and collaboratively to make this a reality?
About Leadership Voices
This article is the first in our Leadership Voices series, which centers the voices of women leaders and the work they are doing on behalf of each other and education.
Have something to say? We want to hear from you! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org about having your voice featured in the Leadership Voices series.