Watch What You Say: Mastering Gendered Language

Women managers currently outscore their male peers in a host of leadership measures. Yet they’re still being passed over when it comes to promotion to top jobs.  The prevalence of stereotypes linking leadership to masculinity is a major reason for that failure. It’s a case of damned if you do or damned if you don’t. When female candidates use a lot of what linguists traditionally call “feminine” speech patterns, decision-makers may erroneously conclude they lack the confidence needed for success.  When they use more “male” patterns, they can be disliked for being too tough or not “feminine” enough.

It would be wonderful if the world would simply evolve to the point where we stop stereotyping leaders in terms of gender expectations and focus instead on measurable performance attributes.  It’s also true that as the need for collaboration grows so does respect for the “feminine markers” linguists identify in female speech.  But while we work on making this progress—what can you do to more effectively manage the tightrope you walk? One answer is to be both strategic and flexible in your communications style.

Researchers who study the impact of female and male markers in speech patterns find that “feminine markers” function to engage others and solicit input, while “male markers” are used to establish status, control and dominance. Let’s look at some examples:

I can state my opinion as a fact, straight out and say:

“Leaders must manage the impression they make through the words they use.”

Linguists call this a “masculine” pattern because it’s the statement of an opinion as a fact. Other patterns linguists find prevalent in male speech that do this include declarative sentences, strategic withholding of feedback (poker face) and frequent use of interruptions or topic shifts to gain and keep the floor.

Overuse of these speech patterns is a common, often unrecognized problem on executive teams. Excessive use of “masculine” speech patterns can undermine collaboration, walling out those with less assertive communication styles or leading to group think with each person following the high status leader. When U.S. leaders favoring this sort of command and control language enter into other, more collective cultures they encounter difficulties managing these differences.

Alternatively, I could offer that same statement as a suggestion by adding so called “feminine” markers which include:

Provisional words: “Perhaps leaders should examine the impression they make through the words they use.”


Statements as questions: “Leaders should examine the impression they make through the words they use, don’t you think?


Simply by ending the sentence by raising my voice so it sounds as if I am asking instead of telling.

So called “feminine” markers help build rapport and trust when negotiating, mediating, coaching and handling customer complaints.  But they can also backfire in competitive settings when you need to establish your authority or give a clear directive.


Mary (boss):  I asked you to cancel the project. Why are you still working on it?

John (subordinate): But you said you thought we ought to cancel it. I didn’t realize you were telling me to stop work on it!

As leaders mature, an essential step for both men and women is to find the right balance of assertion and collaboration for different contexts. For women seeking to advance their careers while walking the tightrope, this is a strategic imperative.

If you need to be viewed as more confident or establish authority, here are tips for increasing assertive speech:

  • make your points without adding tag questions (such as, “don’t you think?”);
  • avoid unnecessary qualifiers, state your opinions definitively “That’s an excellent point” is stronger than “I think that’s a pretty good point, don’t you?”
  • lower your voice at the end of sentences to avoid “up speak,” which is the tendency to end each statement with a raised inflection that makes it sound as if you are asking a question or seeking approval.

If you need to enlist or team better with someone, here are tips for collaboration:

  • phrase your opinions provisionally, using qualifiers like “perhaps” or “I think” or by stating them as questions;
  • add tag questions to the end of sentences to solicit the opinions of others;
  • increase the amount of non-verbal feedback you give to speakers, nodding your head and offering encouragement that draws them in

Women business leaders are discovering that how you say something is as important as what you say.  Becoming more aware of your communications style can ensure that your leadership is heard and recognized.

Authored by Brigid Moynahan, President of The Next Level, Inc. a management consulting firm dedicated to advancing women leaders and promoting inclusion.