The impact of out-of-power language

by Sep 27, 2022

Out-of-power language

The impact of out-of-power language and how we should cultivate inclusive environments where women feel comfortable being themselves


Meghan Markle has recently been criticized for using the word “I” in her One Young World address. Seemingly she used the word “I” 57 times and in so doing, she broke a code around long-standing gender expectations.

She talked about herself. Yep – that’s right. Why is that a problem? Because women are supposed to be other-centred.

Research from Catalyst suggests that there is a “double-bind” that women face in the workplace. They are damned if they do something, and doomed if they don’t.

Worth a read: How double bind bias impacts women leaders – 3 Plus International

When women push back against language gender stereotypes, they may be seen as competent, but are disliked and perceived to be self-centred. When they soften communication to conform, they’re perceived to be weak.

It’s a lose/lose all round.


out of power language

Adapting our language

Tara Mohr highlighted in her book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead, that women adapt their language in a professional capacity to soften themselves to make themselves more likeable.

They use ingrained speech patterns that make them seem apologetic, surprised, or even uncertain about what they are saying. This leads to their opinions and thoughts being discounted or undervalued with long-standing negative impact on their careers and career development;

There have been many commentaries on women using the word “just.” “I just wanted to follow up…” and “I just wanted to check”. Inserting the word ‘just’ softens the message which can be helpful at times, but mainly makes the sentence sound indirect and hesitant which diminishes the effectiveness of the point. Instead, say “I want to follow up…” and “I want to check…”

Worth a read: Free hidden inclusive language tips – 3 Plus International

Pudding phrases

There is also a tendency to add fillers which also make women sound uncertain and unsure of what they are about to say. “I may be wrong, but…” and “I’m not expert…” or “Correct me if I’m wrong…”.

55%  percent of women admit to “softening” their digital workplace communication —using emojis and more passive language to avoid being seen as aggressive or pushy. That pattern continues as women rise up the career ladder.

This is called “Out-of-Power” language or “double voice discourse” which is the language we use when we are expecting a negative reaction. We make those vocabulary choices to minimise risk and to make ourselves feel more secure – and therefore likeable. Women are four times more likely to use this type of language selection says Dr. Judith Baxter reported in ‘The Language of Female Leadership’, and are also more likely to be self-deprecatory than men.

Women may simply have a harder job than men to be effective through their speech patterns: and struggle to be listened to, included in key decisions, taken seriously, and to influence the views of others effectively.

out of power language

Men’s language

Men are not faced with the same problems because the way they speak is the pattern of the “dominant group.” Currently, if women want to participate in a man’s world, they have to fix themselves. Studies show that when men use “pudding words” (my phrase) and qualifying filler phrases they don’t experience the same negative impact as when women use them.

This is why male leaders frequently say “does that make sense?” as a way of checking that everyone is following. Men are seen as empathetic but if I use the same phrase (which I do frequently) I risk coming over as hesitant.

Worth a read; “A difficult woman” and the language we use to describe her – 3 Plus International

And of course, there are all sorts of tips for women to overcome this so they fit in. Use humour, be positive, and give recognition, but all that means is they still have to adapt to gain acceptance.

What we really need to happen is that organisations should cultivate inclusive environments where women feel comfortable to be themselves. It’s a space where they are heard and allowed to speak up, and are  valued for their contributions, no matter how they are phrased.


If your organisation needs support to cultivate an inclusive environment to attract female talent get in touch with 3Plus NOW 



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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