The one key to workplace success everyone can use

Researchers didn’t uncover gender discrimination, but rather a proclivity to listen to people who expressed confidence.

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Confidence is vital, whether for landing a new job or leading an organization. Typically, confidence shines through the written word via assertiveness. But according to a new study, women are less likely to be assertive than men — which could be hurting them in the business world.

The study, by Washington State University and University of California, Merced researchers, sought to uncover perceptions of gender bias when men and women use assertive “cheap talk” — essentially statements that cannot easily be verified as true, such as “I have extremely strong problem-solving skills.”

In a lab experiment, U.C. Merced student participants were randomly assigned to a “team leader.” Those leaders provided pre-scripted written advice on how best to play an incentivized game.

The students were presented with identical information about their leaders, except for gender and “the assertiveness in the cheap talk that accompanied their team leader’s advice,” says the study.

These levels ranged from self-deprecating (least assertive), neutral (moderately assertive), or self-promoting (most assertive). The study was also replicated on Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website. In all, the study surveyed around 1,000 participants.

The results surprised study co-authors and economists Shanthi Manian of Washington State University and Ketki Sheth of U.C. Merced.

“We find that people were equally likely to follow advice when they thought it was coming from a woman as they were when they thought the same advice was coming from a man,” Sheth tells Inverse. “This lack of discrimination held true regardless of how assertive the language was in the advice provided.”


The Strategy — So what’s at play here? Of course, gender discrimination is an all-too-real issue in many facets of life, including in politics and the workplace. As of last year, only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies were led by a female CEO. Manian and Sheth’s research may provide one reason for why this bias may exist: our tendency to listen to people who use more assertive language, which women are less likely to do due to insecurity on when to contribute.

“Our results suggest that women may want to use more assertive language to get others to believe what they are saying, including when they are asserting their own value,” Sheth says. “For example, cover letters for job applications are a place where we are asked to promote ourselves, and it may be the case that women are shying away from using assertive language on asserting their value, to their detriment.”

Why this strategy matters to you — Women face many hurdles in the workplace. Aside from the leadership gap, women are paid less than men for the same roles and often encounter outright sexism and harassment in the workplace. Making matters worse, fewer men than women believe there are systemic gender issues at work. To be sure, women changing the way they communicate won’t fix these issues, but it may help some individuals land jobs, ask for raises, or earn promotions.

Women often feeling less secure about speaking up at work — but assertive language could help.

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How you can implement this strategy — Compare these two statements: “You probably have better problem-solving skills than I do, but here is what I am thinking,” versus, “If you listen to my advice, I can assure you that my skills and experiences will help you perform well in this game.” The content is mostly the same, but the former hedges with less assertive language. The researchers found people were more likely to listen to leaders who gave instructions like the latter, with little downsides.

“All people, but especially women, should review the language they are using and to ask themselves whether they should be using more assertive language,” Sheth says. “This is not always easy to assess, but our results suggest that people shy away from assertive language, even when there are positive benefits, such as having others believe what one is saying.”

The strategy's side effects — It shouldn’t just be on individuals to change the way they speak. Society at large should recognize this issue. For example, hiring managers should take this difference in language to account when deciding on which applicant to bring in for an interview.

The research “suggests that we may want to believe women at a lower level of assertiveness,” Sheth says. “Our results suggest that for an equal level of confidence in the advice being provided, women are going to sound like they are less certain than men (on average). We should take this into account as we decide whether or not to follow leadership.”

Other studies have also shown that there can be backlash when women break gender norms and act more “masculine,” a phenomenon that researchers are trying to understand. But this shouldn’t dissuade individuals from using more assertive language, Sheth says.

The Inverse analysis — Everyone, but especially women, can benefit from more assertiveness in the way they communicate, as it confers to listeners a confidence in one’s abilities. Of course, no one should exaggerate or be blustery, but clearly express why they are worthy of a job, promotion, or raise.

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