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Socially Constructed Gender Norms for Communication (and How to Begin Ignoring Them)

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The magazines I read during high school and college taught me to expect men to be poor communicators of their feelings. My mother and other women of influence in my life confirmed these ideas: Men don’t feel things as deeply as we do, and if they do feel things, they don’t want to talk about them. These trusted sources helped me to construct what I consider now to be incredibly low standards for what I can expect when communicating with men about things that are important to me. Now I have realized that those standards were socially constructed and not in line with what I want for my relationships, and I am happily married to a man that I can expect to openly share feelings with. 

A social construct, according to Merriam Webster, is an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society. The social construction of gender, a theory imbedded deep in the roots of feminism, states that society and culture create gender roles. These gender roles are the “ideal behavior” for men and women, but they begin when we are boys and girls. Boys are expected to be messy and loud, while girls are expected to be clean and quiet. According to socially constructed gender norms, women should be nurturers, caretakers of the house and children, and driven by emotions. Men, on the other hand, should be protectors, leaders, and hard working. 

When we explore the socially constructed gender norms for men and women, it does not take long to recognize that the ideal behavior for men aligns with key characteristics we expect to see in leaders, while the ideal behavior for women aligns with the supporting roles. This is especially true when we outline expectations for how each gender communicates. 

We expect men to be directive and decisive, while we expect women to ask a lot of questions and be generally quiet and unsure. Chances are that as you are reading that sentence, you are thinking of many men and women in your life that do not fall into these “ideals.” However, if you think deeper about each person that came to mind, you may be able to find some aspects of their communication styles that align with their gender normative ideals in other ways.

For example: I am a woman, but I am also direct and decisive. However, I also worry a decent amount about whether or not someone will like me, I ask a lot of questions, and I rely heavily on empathy and reading someone’s emotions during a conversation (all of which are gender normative traits for women.)

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The fact is that no one, man or woman, fits perfectly into a box. We all communicate both inside and outside of the “norms” that society has constructed for our genders. When it comes to workplace communication, however, women often worry about how their communication is perceived– especially when their style doesn’t align with what others might expect from them. 

As women, we often worry about others seeing us as being “too aggressive or too bossy,” and for good reason. I have personally received feedback that I was “coming across as abrasive” when I asked a colleague who was several days late on a deliverable that was holding me up when it would be finished. I have heard similar stories from almost all of my female friends. All of us know deep down that the same feedback would not be given to our male colleagues, simply because society expects men to be direct communicators. Society expects men to take charge, and for women to fall in line. 

The issue? Women don't want to fall in line. Society expects us to communicate and behave in a certain way, but we need to buck the societal norms if we want to get ahead. And we need to do so with confidence and professionalism, whether or not the people we are interacting with are displaying professionalism themselves. 

Here are two small changes that any woman can make in everyday communication that will deliver a big impact:

1. Stop apologizing. Somewhere along the way, women began linking apologies with being polite. We apologize when feel awkward tension, and when we need an entry point to a conversation, or when we simply feel that we need to justify our presence. Apologizing has become such an epidemic that it is now expected, especially of women. "Sorry" is a small word with a big meaning, and it is harder than one would expect to remove it from our vocabulary where it isn't warranted. 

Our suggestion:– Try replacing "I'm sorry" with what you really mean. For example, if you are tempted to apologize as a way to wedge your way into a conversation, instead start with owning it: "I think," "I feel," or even better, "I know." If you want to apologize for keeping someone waiting a day or two for a non-urgent email, consider thanking them instead: "Thank you for your patience" is polite and acknowledges the delay without apologizing when it isn't necessary– we are all busy! 

2. Don't use "fillers." Have you ever had to politely nudge someone who has been delayed in returning communication? What if that person needs to get back to you so as not to delay a deadline? In order to avoid sounding confrontational or aggressive, women will often use “filler” words or phrases to make their statements land in a softer way. Some of these filler phrases may sound familiar:

  • “I’m just reaching out to…”
  • “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”
  • “I think that we may have discussed this timeline, but…”
  • “I’m not sure where we left off, but…”

Our suggestion– Start with email. Write all of your emails just as you normally would, but then, read them a second time. With that second viewing, erase all of the fillers. Don't replace them, just erase them. So, instead of starting an email with, "I'm just reaching out to see if you have had the time to look over the files I sent last week?" say, "Have you looked over the files I sent last week?" At first it will feel rude and unnatural, but really, it is just direct (a communication characteristic typically associated with men.)

These small changes are just that– small. But they are powerful, and the perfect opening to ignoring what society expects of women communicating in the workplace. Stop apologizing, stop filling air, and begin to shape the shift in societal expectations for communications for everyone. 


If you or the women in your organization could benefit from more effective communication techniques, reach out.