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Does Being Authentic Cost You At Work?

The language you use at work may be more important than you think.

This is because certain words and phrases can create passive or active gender roles, which shapes expectations for how men versus women should act in the workplace — even if they don't realize it.

“Don’t use: exclamation points, all caps, or emojis in your emails. Don’t say these things: “I feel like,” “if that makes sense,” or “just checking in” as they all make you look weak.”

If you identify as a woman, I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard some variation of these “tips” during your career. While it’s no shock that women are expected to act like men in order to prove they have leadership qualities, it can be tricky to balance our authentic self, and our “work self.” If our emails or “tone” are direct, we may get labeled a pain-in-the-ass, bossy, harsh, presumptuous, arrogant, intimidating… the list goes on and on. But swing too far in the other direction, we’re emotional, soft, or pushovers.

This double-bind ensures that women struggle to be their authentic self at work. In fact, one study showed that “more than half of workers report some form of ‘covering’ at work — downplaying a part of their identity to minimize potential bias against them.” A study of military leadership showed “‘Compassionate’ was a common descriptor of women, whereas ‘competent’ was frequently used for men. In terms of negative feedback, ‘irresponsible’ was more often applied to men, whereas judgmental and gender-coded terms like ‘frivolous’ and ‘temperamental’ were more likely to be mentioned for women.”

Women in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, engineering, and technology — feel even more pressure to change how they dress, speak, and email to be taken seriously.

There are even thousands of memes today about women and their struggle with the use of exclamation points.

The question that women in all industries and positions ask themselves is: how do I straddle the double-bind line?

The answer: you shouldn’t.

According to Deborah Cameron, “It seems to me (sad irony) that women who think about it a lot and try hard to fix it … are often judged even more negatively than women who don’t seem as concerned about impression management (Michelle Obama, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel).”

By being inauthentic at work, you can impact your personal and professional lives. The impact of hiding your true self every weekday for 8+hours can have a huge toll on your mental health.

Job Sage conducted a study of their own and found that:

  • 86% of workers said they expend energy repressing parts of their identity at work

  • 55% reported that this effort has an adverse effect on mental health

  • 49% of respondents reported that when they’re inauthentic, they experience worse working relationships, don’t do their best work, and are less likely to stay at a job

Professionally, it can make you feel invisible. One worker said, “The less you get to be yourself, the less likely others are to remember you for high-visibility assignments and the less visible you will indeed become.”

All of this doesn’t just affect employees. It can affect the entire company too.

CTI research revealed that a diverse team who are able to be authentically themselves can “boost the team’s innovative potential by providing critical insights into the unmet needs and wants of overlooked or underserved end users like themselves.”

As women we need to avoid accommodating the linguistic preferences, aka prejudices, of the men who run male-dominated companies — because when we do, we are doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s our job as feminists to challenge sexist attitudes, not tiptoe around it.

Author Amanda Montell agrees: “After all, even if every woman in power were to craft her emails to perfection, and manage to come across as balanced as the Angela Merkels of the world, it still wouldn’t solve everything. Our bias against how women leaders sound is structural, not individual.”

With the world becoming more global and diverse, it’s imperative for women to stop hiding their authenticity. Companies need to innovate to stay competitive in their market, and they cannot do that if their employees are able to provide their own unique perspectives.

The bottom line:

  • Stop hiding the real you on the job.

  • Be authentically yourself.

If your company doesn’t appreciate the real you, maybe it’s time to find one that does.


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