Female young professionals have it drilled into them from the moment they enter the workforce: email like a man.
My parents, along with every other mentor I’ve had, warned me against “feminine” language used to soften the delivery of an email. In my freshman year of high school, I emailed one of my male teachers about a grade using stereotypically “feminine” language. Before his salutation, he wrote something along the lines of: “Start emailing like a man. People will take you more seriously.”
How can written communication be “manly”? Should I be harsher with my words and refuse to employ common civilities? What if changing my words isn’t enough? The apparent inevitability of being judged based on language alone is enough to discourage women from sending emails in a professional setting at all.
Lauren McGoodwin, founder of Career Contessa, which defines itself as “a trusted career resource that helps working women be more fulfilled, healthy, and successful at work,” appeared on Good Morning America to speak about the potentially career-harming effects of emailing in a feminine, “less authoritative” way. Her appearance on the show confirms the normalization of this female expectation in our society.
A study done by Carol Waseleski notes that “when elements of speech and writing are associated with female communication style, they tend to be described in negative terms.” Her study focuses on exclamation points specifically, but a quick Google Search of “how to email like a man” turns up hundreds of articles encouraging women to mitigate their use of stereotypically “feminine” language such as “sorry,” “I think” and “I’d love to” when writing work emails.
This is not news, and I know many fellow women who have been told throughout their academic and professional careers that being more authoritative over email (which often involves ditching the common courtesy employed in regular conversations) would help them throughout their careers.
However, an experiment done by two coworkers, Martin Schneider and Nicole Hallberg, at Front Row Central, a movie-review site, may prove differently. The experiment went viral on Twitter after Martin accidentally signed off on some of his emails with Nicole’s email signature and recounted his experience to his followers. Originally, Martin had been sending emails to a difficult client and accidentally signed off as his female coworker. Once he reintroduced himself as a man, he noticed an “immediate improvement” in the client’s behavior. He had made absolutely no change to his style of communication over email, but he now had a man’s name in the client’s eyes. The change in behavior by the client prompted Martin and Nicole to swap email signatures for two weeks.
One of their boss’s complaints was that Nicole always “took too long to work with clients,” according to Martin’s original post. He said that he realized that the reason she had a longer average time spent with clients was because “she had to convince [them] to respect her.” Martin soon realized why that was after they switched email signatures, recounting: “I was in hell. Everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single.” Additionally, he noted that “Nicole had the most productive week of her career.”
The experiment itself is a unique one, but the realization that it uncovered for the two coworkers is not. Women in professional environments can “email like a man” all they want, but the blatant sexism in the industry cannot be denied. As someone who refuses to abandon politeness to those who deserve my respect, my take on Martin and Nicole’s experiment is this: email like YOU, and although gender inequality in the workplace will continue to permeate women’s lives, the best we can do is email potential clients, employers, and peers with the utmost professionalism and respect.