How Women Undermine Themselves With Language, and Easy Fixes to Get Back on Track

Many women report facing unique internal struggles with running a business or taking on leadership roles because of cultural messages they’ve received throughout their lives. How do you dream big and communicate assertively when it’s opposite from how you’ve been taught to behave?

Both directly and indirectly, from an early age girls are often taught to be more quiet and submissive. These messages can have a lasting effect on women into adulthood, affecting their communication style and sometimes undermining their expertise or authority in workplace situations. 

On top of that, long-ingrained gender biases still permeate the culture and language of business. While direct and assertive men are often judged positively as decisive and powerful, women exhibiting those same qualities are sometimes met with disapproval or even hostility. One study shows that female leaders receive negative personality criticism in roughly 75% of performance reviews. In contrast, men in similar roles rarely receive this type of feedback. 

The ability to communicate effectively is the key to success in every area of life. Whether you’re talking to a romantic partner, a prospective customer, or a colleague, communication skills impact the outcome. That’s why, especially as a woman leader, it’s important to embrace your inner boss and communicate effectively.

At Invoice2go, we want every entrepreneur and business leader out there — especially those that may have been traditionally marginalised due to their race or gender — to get the respect and professional opportunities they deserve.

As part of our mission to empower women, we sponsor and produce The Female Founders Network. This global podcast and Facebook group that aims to provide women entrepreneurs with valuable information and a supportive community.

Now is one of the best times for female business owners and entrepreneurs across Australia. More than a third of small Australian businesses are now owned by women, and that number continues to multiply. Still, that doesn’t mean women in business suddenly have it easy.

Let’s take a look at 5 ways you can stop undermining yourself with your words:

1. Stop minimising your hard work and accomplishments.

Traditionally, girls often receive cultural messages that encourage politeness and discourage ambition throughout childhood. There’s research that shows how different this can be from boys. 

As a result, most women experience tall poppy syndrome at some point in their professional lives as adults. It could be after getting a promotion, receiving recognition for an achievement, or reaching a significant milestone while growing a business. Many women discover that they hold culturally ingrained habits of minimising their success and contributions.

If this sounds familiar, take note. While we don’t suggest becoming a braggart, it’s essential to recognise your value and hard work  — both for your mental health and professional success.

Take time each week to reflect and write down your wins. You can share them with someone you feel safe with or just keep them for yourself. There is proof that writing down small wins increases motivation to chase bigger dreams. Over time, you will likely notice increased confidence.

There’s also no need to apologise for your successes in professional or personal conversation. You weren’t just lucky — it took hard work to achieve these goals. Each time you’re tempted to add a caveat to one of your achievements, remember that diminishing your achievements gives others permission to do the same. While you don’t need to boast, take pride in what you’ve accomplished, and avoid playing it down. If someone compliments your work, you can simply thank them.

If you’re concerned about receiving attacks for your accomplishments or ambitions, remember this:
The most successful leaders concern themselves less with being well-liked. They focus more on delivering results and cultivating respect from the people who matter. 

Being criticized and feeling disliked can hurt – especially if you receive those messages from those you care about. Remember that if someone tries to cut you down or makes a personal attack, it’s often a reflection of their own struggles and insecurities. Know your worth and focus on moving the needle towards your goals

2. Stop saying you’re sorry.

Research shows that women apologise much more often than men. But is saying you’re sorry really a bad thing?

It can be. When an apology is warranted, it can be a powerful way to show empathy and mend damage in a relationship. But be careful — many women find themselves apologising out of habit rather than necessity. 

Unless you’ve truly done something hurtful to a coworker, client or colleague, do not apologise. 

Why? Over-apologising can make you seem less confident, cause others to lose respect for you, or even hurt your own self-esteem.

Think you might be an over-apologiser? Try counting how many times you apologise each day. You may find yourself apologising simply for sharing your opinion, disagreeing with a colleague or business partner, standing behind your need for work-life balance, or taking a day or two to respond to a non-urgent email. These apologies aren’t needed, and they can undermine your expertise within a business setting. 

It’s best to save “I’m sorry” for times that really merit it.

What can you say instead? “Thank you” works well in most cases. For example, if you’ve kept someone waiting, try, “Thank you for waiting” instead of “Sorry for making you wait”. If you just made a complaint, try. “Thank you for listening,” instead of “Sorry for complaining”.

Bonus:
If you find yourself using undermining language in emails, try the Just Not Sorry app. This tool highlights weak language in your emails for you to edit before hitting send.

3. Stop talking yourself down.

Another common communication issue for women is double voice discourse. This encompasses phrases like, “I stand to be corrected but”, “Just my opinion”, or “I’m no expert”. Women are four times more likely to use this kind of language than men

While you may use phrases like these to sound more polite, they communicate uncertainty. If you don’t sound convinced by your words, how can you expect others to be?

For many women, “out of power” language is ingrained throughout their upbringing. However, with a little bit of mindfulness, you can steer away from it and come across more confidently. Language has a strong influence on our mindset, so changing your words can actually impact how you feel.

Here are some practical examples. Transform phrases like, “I think I can do that” to “I can do that”. “I will try” becomes “I will”, and “I hope I can” becomes “I can”. Also, avoid shrinkers like “just” and “actually” which also convey uncertainty.

If possible, talk about these language issues with a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them to listen to you during presentation practice or a recorded meeting and point out your “shrinkers” and out-of-power language. You can even build awareness on your own, taking note when you find yourself using these words throughout the day.

Remember:
When you sound confident, you instil trust in those you’re talking to. This is essential when building your business.

4. Inspire confidence through your pitch and tone.

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. For both men and women, 38% of any message is conveyed through tone of voice. A more resonant voice conveys trustworthiness and competence. In fact, it’s been scientifically proven that people prefer leaders with deeper voices regardless of their gender.

Margaret Thatcher famously employed a voice coach to teach her to lower her register to sound more authoritative. Hilary Clinton also proactively adapted her voice over her career.

When you’re communicating, beware of uptalk. When a person raises their pitch at the end of a sentence, it communicates to their audience that they might be asking a question. If this becomes a habit, it can make you seem less sure of yourself. 

The bottom line: If your pitch or tone is reminiscent of a Kardashian circa 2007, it could accidentally undermine your ability to be taken seriously — regardless of your expertise. Although uptalk and higher pitches can make language sound more friendly, they can hinder those seeking to be leaders. Practice speaking from the chest and diaphragm so that you’ll convey warmth, clarity, and confidence. Practicing deep breathing before meetings and positive self-talk before crucial conversations can also help you control your pitch and tone. 

If controlling your tone feels uncomfortable, try recording yourself speaking into the mirror. Listen back to see what speech habits you can evolve or new communication tools you can adapt. Need more? Check out this video for more information and examples of how to communicate with authority

5. Stop asking for permission when you don’t need to.

So much talent goes untapped, and many dreams go unfulfilled because people are waiting to be given permission to do what they really want to do. If this sounds like you, ask yourself — do you really need permission to assume the role of a boss when you’ve already worked hard to get here?

Approval-seeking or permission-seeking habits take many forms, but a common one is asking for permission to speak or share an opinion. This often looks like beginning a sentence with phrases like, “Can I just say…” or “Do you mind…”. Unfortunately, chronic permission-seekers can lose their psychological autonomy and personal authority by letting themselves be governed by others’ opinions.

Remember:
Your thoughts and expertise have value. You don’t need anyone else to tell you it’s okay to share them. 

Look at the language you use. Do you often use phrases like “Sorry, but” or “Would it be okay if”? Words affect how we think and behave, so try making more assured statements right from the start instead of asking for permission first. 

Also, examine your intentions. Are you really seeking someone’s opinion, or are you merely wanting them to tell you what you want to hear? We all need guidance at times, but there is a big difference between a sounding board and an echo chamber.

Finally, avoid making suggestions that sound like questions. For example, “What about increasing the budget?” would sound more authoritative as “We should increase the budget.” While there are times when using questions like this is appropriate, let go of the fear of making bold statements. It will have a more significant impact and highlight your expertise rather than diminishing it

Bonus: Use body language to your advantage.

As a business owner or entrepreneur, you’ve likely read articles and tips about body language and its importance.

Women often use body language that shrinks them down or hides them. For instance, wrapping your arms around your body is a sure-fire way to make everyone in the room subconsciously think that you don’t want to be seen or heard. 

Head tilts can also be considered submissive. Keeping your head straight up in a neutral position signifies you’re not kowtowing to the person you’re communicating with. 

A firm handshake (in non-COVID times) is also a well-known tool that people use to gauge assertiveness and confidence in business. Face the other person squarely, make sure that you have full contact with their palm, and shake firmly.

Overwhelmed? That’s okay. You don’t have to make all of these changes in one go.

It’s absolutely okay to upgrade your communication style one change at a time. Start with one new communication habit, and make further adjustments as time goes on. Perhaps you can start with the email app, then work on your tone and pitch. Implementing one small change at a time will likely give you better results and help you feel like you’re taking control of how you are perceived professionally. 

For more useful tricks for improving your communication as a woman leader, join our Facebook group. We don’t want you to miss out on other helpful content that can help you be the boss you were meant to be.