Lean In Or Don’t Lean In-Is That The Right Question For Women?

It’s been difficult lately to keep up with all the proscriptive comments lobbied towards women on how they “should” communicate in the workplace, as well as with family, and in all areas of their lives. They have been tasked to not use “vocal fry” and “upspeak,” or say “just” and  “sorry,”  and they’re told to lean in, take risks, not fear failure, and—now the latest—to dye their grey hair. If that isn’t enough to keep track of, there are also the concomitant arguments countering each of these positions.[1]

These arguments on effective communication echo long-standing disagreements over the best way to tackle the rampant gender inequality in the U.S. Do we focus on an individual solution, or tackle the systemic and institutionalized problem? The arguments have at least three main facets:

  • Women are told to modify their behaviors to combat this inequality. However, others argue it is a societal problem of systemic gender discrimination that needs to change.
  • Women need to assert themselves more strongly to better fit into the male imbued workplace. Yet, others contend men’s way of communicating is not the only way and women shouldn’t have to take on these aggressive forms to compete.
  • Privileged women can pave the way to make the work world better for others. While others claims that a lack of attention to the intersections of race and class alienate women and further sets all of them back.

While informing us of the complexity of the issue, these aspects of the argument aren’t moving us forward to help women face, confront, and manage the micro-inequities they hear, see, and read about on a daily basis.

Over the years, I have worked with and trained thousands of women ranging from business professionals, to health care workers, wives, students, and youth. In every training, women, young and old, are hungry to vent their frustrations that they have when communicating and “competing” with men in the workplace. They don’t want to wait for the system to change, nor do they want to emulate a system that locks them out, silences them, and disempowers them.

What if we changed the conversation?

What if, instead of these proscriptions, we gave women information, options, and tools? Information about the intersecting nature of power, privilege, and patriarchy and the ways that they impact their socialization as women. Options that best fit their personalities for how to work within and outside the system. And, concrete tools to help navigate communicating in these wide-ranging situations.

By changing the conversation and providing women with conscious choices, we entrust women to formulate individualized strategies that suit them and the context within which they are communicating.

A woman, who naturally speaks her mind, might sometimes choose to use “just” and “sorry” to tone down her message. While another, who actively listens and shies away from the spotlight, might sometimes choose to remove these diminishing words and phrases.

The key point is that women can choose their own way of communicating by being actively aware of these choices. And, it is with this conscious awareness that women develop their own way of communicating that best fits their temperament and the situation, and they become empowered.

One place to start on an individual level is with the three A’s of Mindful Communication—Awareness, Assertiveness, and Action.

  • Awareness: Identify your default communication style and ways you tend to passively keep quiet or aggressively overreact.
  • Assertiveness: Develop an effective communication style that fits your temperament and the various situations you face.
  • Action: Use communication skills to say what you mean and mean what you say.

As one woman recently said after a program: “With these tools I can better navigate the tricky landscape of speaking up for myself.”

Here’s to women empowering themselves to speak up and feel good about it, and leaving behind the proscriptions to be something they aren’t.

[1] For articles on these arguments see: Upspeak and vocal fry have their place, just and sorry can be used, don’t lean in, and disregard the confidence gap.

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