“People don’t take me seriously because I’m a girl,” I said to a friend about the computer science graduate seminar we were taking my junior year of college.
“People don’t take you seriously because you talk like a Valley Girl,” he said. Subtlety was not his strong suit, but he had a point. I sounded like I belonged at the mall in Los Angeles, not in a computer science class at Harvard.
What a revelation: People discriminated against me not because of my gender, but because of behaviors associated with my gender. Since then, as I am often the only woman in the room at work, I have learned to adapt my behaviors to be taken more seriously. Of course, it would be ideal if people accepted women as they were, but expectations and biases do not change overnight. In the meantime, here are some lessons I have learned during the many years of my PhD program in computer science, a field that is only 20% women.
1. Get Used to Establishing Dominance
You may have noticed that men seem to love facts. When two men meet, they go back and forth with all the facts they know about football, music, restaurants, and whatever else. You may have learned to tune this out as something benign that men like to do.
But ignore what seems to be a cute male idiosyncrasy, and you lose your place in the social hierarchy. When men do this fact exchange, they are sizing each other up—the male human equivalent to mutual sniffing in the animal world. In the book Talking from 9 to 5, Georgetown sociolinguist Deborah Tannen explains that men tend to approach conversations with the goal of achieving dominance. In contrast, women tend to approach conversations with the goal of preventing the other people from taking a subordinate position. Men state facts, and women give compliments. As a result, when men and women converse, both male and female observers will report that the man “won” the conversation.
You can get around this “discrimination” by joining this dominance game. When talking to men at work, make sure not to “lose” the conversation. Get used to showing up to a conversation and asserting your position. Get used to playing fact ping-pong. Get used to showing up and stating your credentials. If you want to make a point, have the facts to back yourself up. Stock up on “fact ammunition.” If someone is sizing you up, don't just give compliments. Play the game.
2. Censor Your Inner “Good Girl”
An undergraduate professor of mine once noted that I rarely asked questions in class. I told her I was intimidated by the quality of questions asked by other students in the class, who were mostly men. She told me to notice the “hit rate” of questions the men asked, pointing out that the actual percentage of good questions hovered around 50%.
Women often lose out on the opportunity to seem smarter because we are socialized to self-censor. In The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons writes that starting from a young age, girls are told they need to appear perfect. As a result, girls hesitate to raise their hands in class unless they are sure of the answers. These girls grow into women who hesitate to speak up in class and in meetings. As a result, their male peers get more credit for asking questions and having good ideas. In addition, their male peers also have the advantage of getting more feedback from their environments.
To appear more competent and creative, learn to censor your self-censorship. Pretend you are the cockiest guy in the room. When you hesitate to ask a question or hesitate to express an idea, pretend you are that guy. Don't worry about other people thinking what you say is stupid. Own it. That is what people will remember.
3. Learn to Fight Like a Man
A professor in my department told me that he often sees women “fight wrong.” He observed that women often make men uncomfortable because the men perceive them as unpredictable. The men felt like the women they work with randomly blow up at them for no reason. This made them reluctant to continue working closely with the women.
This negative perception of women occurs because of a miscommunication that arises from different fighting styles. Boys grow up sparring, physically and otherwise. They become accustomed to engaging with each other through a series of small conflicts: for dominance, to resolve issues, or just for the heck of it. As a result, they also establish codes for fighting: Fights are announced ahead of time, and what happens during a fight (usually) stays within the boundaries of the fight. Girls, on the other hand, grow up learning to avoid conflict. Girls fight less frequently and more dramatically. As a result, adult men and women have different expectations about the frequency and nature of conflict. These different expectations can cause men to find women unpredictable and irrational.
To establish a reputation as being rational and predictable, learn to approach conflicts as sport. Get accustomed to fighting small skirmishes instead of waiting for large battles. Learn the codes for fighting fair—for instance, tell people ahead of time that you are going to disagree with them. Most importantly, keep professional disagreements separate from personal relationships.
4. Stop Talking Like a Teenage Girl
Actress Lake Bell has been campaigning against “sexy baby voice,” the trend among young women to use vocal fry and uptalk. And with good reason: This vocal tendency is holding women back professionally.
For women, there is a tension between speaking authoritatively and using language to get what you want. According to the New York Times, there are legitimate reasons for women to do this: By conveying friendliness, these vocal patterns are “powerful tools for building relationships.” Unfortunately, in male-dominated environments, these habits are often judged as being insecure, emotional, or stupid.
Fortunately, you can easily prevent this negative judgment. If you find your vocal habits hard to break, record yourself speaking and figure out what you need to improve: Take note of upward intonation and trailing off at the ends of sentences; take note of excessive use of “like” and “um.“ For bonus points, watch videos by women who speak authoritatively and practice sounding like them.
Of course, it is important to find a work personality that suits you. I hope that by breaking down some of these “cultural“ differences, these tips will help you adapt to male-dominated environments in ways that allow you to remain true to who you are.
Jean Yang is a PhD candidate in computer science at MIT, where her favorite perk of graduate school is all the free travel. She received her BA from Harvard and has interned at Facebook, Microsoft Research, and Google. She co-founded Graduate Women at MIT and is currently running NeuWrite Boston, a writing group for scientists and science writers.More from this Author