Creating Confident Women in the Workforce

In my work at The Professor Is In, I coach people with Ph.D.s in how to manage the terrible academic job market. My clientele is about 70% female, so I work with a lot of women on their job applications, interviews, negotiating, and career strategizing. I work mainly to overcome self-sabotaging habits of thinking, writing, speaking, and body language that play a role in holding women back. They are especially common among women who come from first generation, low income, or underrepresented backgrounds. While discrimination against women is structural and systematic, there are things individual women can do to sound more or less authoritative in the workplace, and ways of speaking are one of them.

The fact is, a “good” woman, according to social norms that still prevail in the US and elsewhere, is self-effacing.  She doesn’t put herself forward or threaten men with her forceful opinions or authority. This ideal of self-effacement impacts even successful professional women. A recent study by a political scientist, Barbara F. Walter, found that women are only half as likely as men to cite their own past publications in their new writing (a basic form of self-promotion in the academy). Her study found that women said there was something “dirty and underhanded” about citing your own work. Meanwhile, “the other men [in the room] were all saying it was perfectly normal, and why wouldn’t you want to promote your own work?”

When I work with women on job applications, interviews and negotiations, to overcome the self-effacement ideal, I tell them: “You are entitled…

To be here

To express opinions

To publicize your accomplishments

To ask for what you want and need, including raises

To take your employers’, mentors’ and colleagues’ time

To ask employers, mentors and colleagues for professional support

To have your opinions and decisions respected

To succeed in your career”

Then we work on overcoming five communication habits that many women unconsciously practice, that arise from this upbringing in self-effacement. These are: leading with apologies, defaulting to “not knowing,” self-deprecation, and “making nice.” I’m not saying these habits are wrong or bad in every context; I’m saying that in professional settings, they are unproductive, and undermine women’s authority and assertiveness.

Let’s take each in turn.

Leading with apologies. “Um, excuse me, yeah, I’m sorry, but um… yeah, I’m sorry to ask such a stupid question, and I really apologize if I’m derailing the discussion, but I was just wondering if I could mention that ….” (See Amy Schumer’s recent “I’m Sorry” comedy sketch for more)

This implies that the speaker is unqualified to speak.  Replacement: “Excuse me, I want to mention that…”


Defaulting to “not knowing.” “I’m not an expert, so correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but I just wonder if another conclusion is possible….”

This implies that the speaker is less knowledgeable than the person to whom she’s speaking.  Replacement:  “This is interesting, but I think another conclusion is possible…”


Self-deprecation. “I would love it if I could get a tenure track position in sociology, if it’s even possible, but there are tons of people with way more experience than me, and I don’t have many publications, so it’s kind of just a pipe dream, but hey, a girl can dream, right?….”

This minimizes the speaker’s abilities and achievements.  Replacement: “I want to get a tenure track position in sociology.”


Making nice. “Oh, just to follow up on what YOU said, I was thinking EXACTLY the same thing, I think you are making SUCH a good point, totally brilliant, but just to add on to that a little bit that maybe we could consider….”)

This codependently focuses on others’ feelings rather than the speaker’s opinion or point of view.  Replacement: “Good point!  But I think we can also consider…”

Being assertive does not mean being selfish, obnoxious or pushy; it just means clearly articulating your viewpoint and focusing on your contribution rather than excessive anxiety about how it will be received.

In recent years the idea that women should change the way they talk or act to get ahead in their career has come under increasing critique. Just this past month a heated online debate arose about a piece by LinkedIn exec Ellen Petry Leanse, claiming that women overuse the word “just.”  As in, “I just wanted to check…” “I was just wondering…” etc. Leanse says that it is overly deferential and self-effacing and women need to stop using it.

Many feminist critics responded that what women really need to do is stop being pressured to police their language.

I appreciate the feminist refusal to define what women do or say as “wrong.”  Obviously, discrimination against women in the workplace is structural and can’t be overcome simply by individual women removing one or another word or phrase from their speech. However, as a career coach, when I do mock academic interviews with my clients, I instantly register it when they pepper their responses with apologies, uptalk, and self-deprecation.  I know beyond the shadow of a doubt, based on all my years in academic contexts, that these habits make the client sound “non-professorial.” Some may wish that “sounding professorial” could be more flexible and encompass a variety of styles.  But it doesn’t—academics have biases, and those biases favor falling tones, assertiveness, and the non-apologetic delivery of scholarly opinions. When my clients deviate from these norms, it’s not subtle; it’s like nails on a chalkboard, and it says: “not professor material,” or “sounds like a grad student,” and ultimately, “not qualified for this job.”

Perhaps that’s unfair. We might get frustrated with academia for its rigidity or its unconscious reproduction of male norms of speech and behavior.  But do you want your own chance for a job to be at risk while you stand on the principle that a woman should be able to talk any way she pleases, even when that way displays classic female signals of deference and self-effacement?

While women’s status in the workplace depends on a lot of wide structural factors, and systematic male privilege (and of course not all women share a single status), burying your opinions in “sorrys” and self-deprecation does not help you.  Just remember, these unexamined habits of speech and behavior come from the pressure on women to be nice and unthreatening. They were never meant to make a woman sound competent or authoritative on the job.

About the Author: KAREN KELSKY has run The Professor Is In blog and business since 2010, and today, she is the most widely recognized expert in the highly engaged world of Ph.D.’s attempting to navigate the transition to the job market. A former tenured professor and department head at two major research institutions, she knows (and shares) the insider knowledge of academic hiring.

Photo Credit:  Kellee Weinhold



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