When I read resumes, cover letters, and performance evaluations, I am struck by how differently we use language when describing women.
A man and a woman can hold the same role, but where a man simply achieved, a woman “worked hard to achieve.” He led; she “took on a leadership role.”By the time I’m done reading, I’m convinced that he deserves the job, promotion, or raise he is seeking.
To her, I just want to give a pat on the head and a gold star.
Linguist Deborah Tannen has been studying gender differences in communication for nearly 40 years. In her bestselling book, Talking From 9 to 5: women and Men in the Workplace, Tannen outlines how women are socialized to use language in ways that hurt them in the workplace.
She explains that even young boys are conscious of their public image, rarely discussing their weaknesses. Girls, on the other hand, “…are expected to be ‘humble’—not try to take the spotlight, emphasize the ways they are just like everyone else, and de-emphasize ways they are special.”
While this may help girls make more friends on the playground, when those girls become women on the job search, excessive humility backfires. You may not be able to change how your boss talks about you, but you can change how you describe yourself.
Here are five questions to help you determine whether you’re giving yourself the credit you deserve:
1. Do You Emphasize Process or Results?
Women often focus on the process of their work rather than outcomes. This not only comes across as you having accomplished less, but it can seem like the task took you longer than everyone else. Go through your writing and shift the focus of every sentence to results. Take out phrases like “I worked hard” that distract us from what your hard work achieved.
Instead of: “I struggled with a database management issue that had vexed my predecessors, but through careful analysis was able to fix it so we could better target our customers.”
Try: “I corrected a problem in our database that had constrained our marketing efforts for over three years. Now we target customers by both location and purchase history, resulting in a greater sales-to-advertising ratio.”
2. How Specific Are Your Verbs?
Verbs such as “help,” “assist,” and “support” are vague, leaving it up to your reader to decide whether that means you were actually on the team or just brought them coffee! Conditional verbs such as “would” and “could” imply that an action has not yet been taken—in which case, maybe the action you enabled did not really add value to your organization. Find the verb that communicates what you actually achieved.
Instead of: “I designed an event planning template that would help my colleagues plan their own events without missing any details.”
Try: “I designed an event planning template that colleagues from multiple divisions have used for key events, including our annual fundraising gala. This has resulted in fewer day-of mishaps and improved media coverage.”
3. Are Your Individual Contributions Clear?
Nobody can be everything at once. Women often use up a lot of space describing what their teams collectively accomplished rather than describing their own roles. That can be great in the office or for public-facing materials, but it doesn’t demonstrate how you add value. Hone in on your precise contribution and how it advanced your organization’s goals.
Instead of: “Together, we raised over $1 million, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.”
Try adding: “My face-to-face outreach to local businesses generated an additional $80,000 in donations, accounting for fully half of the increase in donations.”
4. Are You Speaking Directly, or Through a Filter?
It feels great to be put in charge of a project, especially if you’re given responsibility by someone important. However, it’s better to let your references speak for themselves. Attempting to speak for them can come off as pretentious, and it adds a layer of distance between you and your reader. Focus on what you did with these opportunities.
Instead of: “Thanks to my standout interpersonal skills, I was asked by the CEO and co-founder to handle a particularly sensitive client.”
Try: “I took over the company’s relationship with a client that was on the verge of dropping our account. Within three months, I convinced the client to increase its business with us.”
5. Do Your Adjectives Describe Emotion, or Action?
Women often put the emphasis on their feelings, asserting that their passion for a particular kind of work will help them overcome obstacles. That may be true, but emotions are fleeting. If you truly love doing something, you should have evidence to back it up.
Instead of: “I am passionate about education.”
Try adding: “I have been passionate about education ever since my two years of service in the Peace Corps. While teaching opportunities in my current position are limited, I have volunteered for the past three years at a local summer camp, where I run creative writing workshops for middle school students.”
Learning to describe your work can be a difficult process, but it’s worth it. As you become conscious of how you are using language, you will be able to change the way that others perceive you. In the process, you might just change the way you perceive yourself.
For this post, YouTern thanks out friends at Levo League!
About the Author: Candace Faber is a foreign policy and gender issues expert who has worked for the U.S. Department of State in Afghanistan, Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Washington, DC. Before becoming a diplomat, she served as editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and co-edited the 8th edition of Careers in International Affairs. She holds a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and bachelor’s degrees in political science and Russian from the University of Washington. Candace currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where she enjoys racing triathlons, writing short stories, and working on her latest book project, a compilation of interviews with trailblazing women.