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How Hedging Hinders Her Career and 6 Helpful Hints to Hurdle It

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

"The practice of assertiveness: being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts."

- Nathaniel Branden

What is Hedging?

Hedging, also called linguistic devices, includes phrases like "perhaps," "appears to be," "possibly," or "I think." Men hedge to "enhance their power in presentation," especially when communicating to a female audience, and women use it to avoid impoliteness. One female director at an investment firm, we'll call her Diane, illustrates hedging when she initiates classes with male stockbrokers. She prefaces her discourse with, "You know more about this than I'll ever know but let me share with you the secrets of other successful brokers."

Diane not only discredits herself when she hedges but also compliments her male audience by communicating that they are (more) intelligent and successful. In other words, she gives men an ego boost.

Social and gender norms influence hedging, but using indirect words and phrases is also a deliberate communication strategy – a strategy counterproductive to women who desire promotion.

Diane, for example, purposefully hedges to please, reflect modesty, and avoid making her male audience "feel inadequate." Although Diane holds more expertise than the stockbrokers, she imparts warmth and friendliness instead of confidence. A man in her position is more likely to self-promote and use superlative language to impart his value rather than politeness, sensitivity, and support. Women who make others feel adequate at the expense of making themselves look inadequate will pay the price.

Although it's a primitive gender stereotype, men expect women colleagues to maintain softer, maternalistic qualities. These compassionate qualities are conducive to transformational leadership but run counter to the archaic yet embedded masculine leadership qualities practiced in the workplace today.

It's no secret that white men have historically displayed social dominance over women and minorities. Men produce books and theories about transformational leadership and emotional intelligence yet typically have little experience or ability to express empathy, unite, include, empower, unleash talent, and process emotive information to influence others in a positive way.

Mothers and women, in general, are highly skilled in these areas and demonstrate it in their ability to detect emotional cues, raise children from infant to adult, and, yes, even hedge. While men are on the sidelines, women have had the primary role of envisioning and working toward the big picture. In their role, women develop, shape, mentor, and map the trajectory of human life - for better or worse - preparing their children to enter a male-dominated workplace. What happens after male bosses take the reins of mentoring and grooming young men leads us to question today's authoritarian leadership practices.

Men Talk, Women Must Earn Their Voice

A woman's workday is an obstacle course. She navigates masculine-based cultural ideals and social rules and balances between feminine-communal and masculine-agentic traits.

Unlike men who speak off the cuff, women must attend meetings with prepared research, facts, and statistics to back what they say. When she is not validated, her voice is typically ignored or overpowered by a man's voice.

Men consider women disrespectful if they raise their voices or interrupt. It's outdated but an implicit violation of gender norms. If a man does acknowledge her, he may do one of four things: ignore her, downplay her recommendations, rephrase her words, or take credit for her ideas. Other times, men will help a woman "for the show." He will run to her "rescue" and offer help but will generally refrain from asking for her help, especially in front of another male. Many men refuse advice from women because they perceive it as a vulnerability or fear their peers will see it as a sign of weakness. In turn, this shrinks a woman's platform to network, shine, and advance.

As observed, businessmen play the "strong, intelligent male" gender role. They often fail to realize businesswomen are keenly intuitive and just as strong and intelligent. A woman can usually see a man flexing a mile away yet has no known tools to change the status quo. And when she doesn't see his flex coming, she may feel belittled and inferior. Note to men: women don't need rescuing – they need emotionally intelligent men who offer the same ground rules.

Men Expect Women to Hedge, then Punish Them for Hedging

To this day, "professional" men are not listening to professional women. Women must fight for airtime, tailor their communication to maintain favorable relations, be seen as team players, and disarm the male ego. Women are socialized to phrase their ideas and suggestions carefully. If men sense that women are forceful or controlling - men "have been known" to call them (fill in the blank). For instance, women will hedge by saying, "what do you think of this," "sorry to interrupt, but can I say something," or "I believe you were mentioning," often giving credit to a man for her ideas, just to make progress and get heard among the big egos in the room.

It's 2021, and women still play the expected feminine/dutiful role and are rarely accepted as competent in-group members. Women hedge to gain entry to speak. Men expect but also dismiss women who hedge because it makes women appear unconfident - a double-bind for women. If a woman knows something a man doesn't, she will usually appease him and extend politeness; otherwise, he may feel threatened or become defensive, penalizing her for being "pushy." In other words, men ignore women who hedge and punish women for being no-nonsense and pushing the boundaries of gender norms. Neither has anything to do with competence, but both can impact performance.

Do Men Corner the Market on Agentic Traits?

Agentic traits such as self-assertion, independence, and confidence are traits men respect in other men but are often devalued and despised in women. Women of color struggle to show self-assertion even more because of stereotypes, media hype, bias, and lack of representation and support at work. These social and gender norms are antiquated and detrimental to women and the empathetic, fair and interpersonal leadership needed in the 21st century.

Women experience high levels of dissonance, inauthenticity, low job satisfaction, and stress to perform, think like, and display confidence at work because men expect them to assume the discourse, behavior, and actions of a woman from the 1950s as "dutiful, obedient and silent."

When assertive, men call her a witch; if hesitant, men view her as unconfident and incompetent. If she runs her ideas past others before drawing a conclusion, men think she is indecisive rather than inclusive. Men perceive her as overreaching or emotional if she promotes a vision or complains. If upset, men call her oversensitive. If she doesn't smile, she's seen as a prude.

On the other hand, if a man fails to run his ideas past others, his male peers see him as decisive. If he promotes a vision, his peers think he's prescient. They see his complaints as legitimate facts. They consider his emotional anger normal but label her anger as out-of-control or flustered. Unlike women, men are not expected to smile or be friendly and polite.

Women Hold Transformational Leadership Skills

Double standards prevent women from getting ahead and corporations from maximizing women's transformational leadership traits. Interpersonal skills organizations seek to compete in the global economy include inclusiveness, engagement, recognition, empathy, listening, communicating, understanding, motivating, feedback, and serving as an agent of change. The very same skills organizations try to ( and have been trying to) teach male leaders.

Alas, the blind lead the blind as male-led leadership institutions attempt to teach male executives leadership skills, the ones women have practiced their entire lives.

White men continue to maintain a larger share of social value in status, power, and resources. It explains why in 2021, only 30 percent of women hold top leadership positions and less than 30 percent of "companies on the S&P 500 do not have at least one Black board member."

Even though diversity and inclusion efforts began some 50 years ago, there is a "lack of diversity among upper management." Since CEO Ken Frazier retired from Merck in June of 2021, only four Black CEOs are in the Fortune 500.

The thought leadership space is skyrocketing for a good reason. And while Kamala Harris became the first female Black and Asian American vice president, the equality needle remains idle across corporate America.

Leadership Takeaways

I won't prevaricate; there's more to this than beating around the bush. With male leaders at the helm, people might think the demand for good leadership wouldn't be so high. But they would be wrong. The need for good leadership continues to grow. It reveals itself in a market teeming with leadership advisory firms, executive coaches and consultants, leadership training and development, and leadership books, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube.

Here's a fact, women are better leaders and team players than men. They outrank men when it comes to taking initiative and getting results. According to Gallup, "41% of female managers have better engagement skills and are more involved with their workforce as compared to only 35% of male managers."

Advice for Women and Men

  • Men: Mind your ego and learn to be aware of yourself and the women in your workplace. Include female counterparts in your meetings and sidebar (pre-meeting) discussions so they have an equal chance to participate in the discussions and decisions before the meeting. Ask women how to lead democratically – equality, empathy, and inclusion are paramount to good leadership and performance goals.

  • Women: As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you'll be criticized anyway." You are as capable as your male peers, so be unapologetic and get to the point if you wish to advance. Your odds are more favorable than dilly-dallying or remaining docile. If you're going to face criticism anyway, you have nothing to lose by being direct.

  • Men: Let women speak! And if you expect a woman to bring a preponderance of evidence before speaking, prepare to do the same. Your merits are not worth more than a woman's. If you want to be an inclusive, high-performance leader, engage in Stinky Fish team building, evaluate the ROTI of each meeting, or try Plus/Delta feedback. Be a pioneer and know where women stand on issues, not just men.

  • Women: Speak up! Don't leave a meeting until you get airtime – even if it means quoting Vice President Kamala Harris, "Excuse me, I'm speaking." Again, do not apologize for interrupting; if that's standard protocol, follow it. To become a top leader, you must put the moose on the table, set clear boundaries, and articulate expectations from the get-go. If male counterparts don't like it, that's okay; you're there to serve the organization's interests, not please and cater to the male ego. If you want to advance, you cannot be risk-averse. There are plenty of organizations that value skills over smiles. Follow Nathaniel Branden's advice in the quote at the top of the page; yes, he's a man; quite a few emotionally intelligent men are aware of their ego, fair and equitable to women, and considerate of their viewpoints.

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