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Are you a female in the corporate world receiving unsolicited (and unhelpful) advice about your communication skills? You are not alone.

This year for international women's day I was invited to write an article addressing female struggles in corporate communication and confidence. What follows is testimony from real women and some of my thoughts and advice on how we can change things.

This is an article for everyone. Read on....


They say you should write about what you know. Well, I identify as a woman, and I’m also what you might call international, having moved from my native United Kingdom to Singapore over 13 years ago. I have travelled to close to a dozen different countries to deliver communication training workshops. It’s my role to talk to women (and men) about their corporate lives and help them find greater authenticity and intentionality.  


But despite meeting the criteria for writing an International Women’s Day article, I find myself rearing back when sitting down to write about gender in the workplace. I think: “I can’t write that, I might get someone’s back up. What if people don’t agree with me?  I sound too aggressive, too negative, too antagonistic! The message won’t land well…” 


In the end, this inner monologue spurred me on. I realised that the doubtful voice in my head comes from somewhere, and it's the same voice ringing in the ears of many of my female peers and clients. How do I know this? Because these women have told me. As a trainer, I have the unique privilege of hearing participants’ stories from all over the world. In our women’s leadership programmes, I have learned the painful truth: that self-critical voice doesn't just exist in our minds. Many participants have shared experiences of criticism and power struggles among their colleagues. 


With respect for International Women’s Day and the many women I have worked with, I choose to be honest. The truth is – the disparity between women and men in the workplace is alive and well. I have heard women’s stories of being told by male colleagues to amend their tone and to mask their feelings. Female leaders are having their ideas explained to them by male colleagues, or worse: their ideas adopted and claimed as somebody else’s.  


Examples: 

“I am told I am aggressive when I disagree.” 

“When I am direct, I am told not to be emotional.” 

“I have to speak like them, not me, to get them to listen.” 

“When I smile, I am told it is too feminine and unprofessional.” 

“When I offer an idea, my male colleagues repeat what I have just said and claim it as their idea.” 


The women reading this article might have experienced these comments in meetings. I am sure you felt taken aback. Perhaps you were left thinking that you were at fault, and that you should make changes to ensure your colleagues don’t feel challenged. But you are not alone. The fact that words such as “mansplaining” are entering the dictionary shows how common these occurrences are. Let’s explore some practical ways to navigate the examples:  


  • “I have to speak like them, not me, to get them to listen.” It is true that the human brain likes familiarity, but it is also true that it enjoys novelty. Can you be more you, not less? There is power in highlighting contrasts in thinking and approach. Remember Dolly Parton's quote: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”. Speak what’s on your mind with emphasis and intention. By trying to emulate others, your communication will lack that sincerity and sparkle that makes people listen.   


  • “When I smile, I am told it is too feminine and unprofessional. Some situations require warmth whilst others require a gear change into something firmer. Smiling is not wrong (nor is it a uniquely feminine trait!) - it builds relationships and is therefore far from being unprofessional. However, consider this: sometimes, we smile excessively in difficult situations. This comes down to nerves and uncertainty. Are you a nervous smiler? You can get help to manage your nerves through breathing and mindset exercises. I do these with almost all my clients, female and male. By keeping your nerves at bay, your facial expressions will be more congruent with the message you want to convey.  


  • “When I offer an idea, my male colleagues repeat what I have said and claim it as their own”. I am a theatre professional, and we live for the principle that we can tell the same story in many ways. Unfortunately, this means that people can paraphrase our words and make it sound like something new. Boom – suddenly, your golden nugget has become someone else’s idea. So, what can we do to take back the reins? 1) Take a belly breath, allowing the frustration to rise and subside. 2) Try saying, "Thanks for the support, John. I’m glad you like this idea. How does everyone else feel about it?” 


  • “I am told I am aggressive when I disagree” or "When I am direct, I am told not to be emotional". If you have pent-up frustration (and from this list of anecdotes, why wouldn’t you!?) you might well be using passionate expression in your voice or body to disagree. If your communication is being misinterpreted as “aggressive”, try this: name your emotions. Here's an example: “I see that ____ has happened… this makes me feel ____.” When we combine evidence (what I see) and emotion (what I feel), it is much harder to be misread. Don’t forget: you are allowed to feel things! 

Many of the gender stereotypes surrounding communication are deep-rooted. We might not even be aware of them. But when stereotypes turn into criticism or lead to missed opportunities, we all need to take notice.  


As a trainer with years of experience in women’s leadership, here is my message:


Listen closely to the language used in your workplace. Are ideas shared by women being hijacked or harangued?
When we celebrate diversity of perspectives, we drive innovation.
Whoever you are, ask yourself how you can help to intervene, to educate and to create an environment of freedom for everyone to express themselves authentically and courageously.

In my eyes, that’s a goal worth speaking out for! 



A version of this article by Victoria Mintey originally appeared on the blog of Dramatic Resources on 8th March 2024.

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