Gender and Generation: Two Major Workplace Communication Gaps

Anna Johansson

March 03, 2020

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If you've ever looked at the number of women in leadership positions at major companies, you've probably noticed an alarming trend: there aren't many of them. In fact, there are too few women in leadership or management roles in most businesses, large and small alike, with the exception of companies that explicitly prioritize promoting women. The same is true among older workers. If you haven't climbed the ranks relatively young, there's a strong chance you'll find yourself stagnating, even if you're an excellent employee. How did this happen?

The fact is that gender and generation gaps account for major workplace divisions, and both can be reduced to a core issue: communication differences. Older workers and women aren't perceived as powerful at work, and they're overlooked when choosing leadership. However, when companies encourage and elevate diverse communication styles, these gaps begin to disappear.

Listen Up: The Gendered Communication

Young women today have heard it all before - they apologize too much, hedge their statements, or cushion their opinions to make them more palatable to others. Superiors may then refuse to promote them to management because they're perceived as lacking the leadership skills to be successful. Unfortunately, when they shift tones to speak more like their male counterparts, these same women are then viewed as bossy, rude, or otherwise unpleasant. There's no winning, or rather, there's no winning when women are the ones who are encouraged to change.

To close the communication and resulting leadership gap at work, it's more effective for workplaces to encourage all staff to be attentive and empathetic listeners, as well as leaders. By making listening as important as clarity or influence in internal communications, workplaces can make space for women, minorities, and older workers who may express themselves differently from the young, typically white men who dominate management-level positions.

Tech Troubles Hit Older Generations

Just as women may communicate differently from men, older workers who joined the workplace before the dominance of email and chat platforms may struggle with the increased reliance on technology in workplace communication. Whatever happened to just heading over to your co-worker's cubicle to ask a question? The simple answer is that real-time chat and remote work transformed workplace dynamics, but the right answer to this gap isn't to encourage older workers to hurry up and change. Instead, as with gendered communication differences, offices need to encourage flexibility and inclusiveness.

One of the challenges that businesses face when trying to include older workers and accommodate their communication styles is that businesses are actively recruiting younger workers. These workers bring with them a generationally-bound set of communication patterns; they prefer informal communication like chat platforms and texting, but they also dislike small talk. Furthermore, they'd rather network around the water cooler than have a formal meeting.

In multi-generational workplaces, management needs to oversee efforts to find common ground and encourage mutual mentoring opportunities. Comprehensive communications platforms that include both chat and more traditional memo formats can help make sure everyone feels comfortable contributing. And while millennials are viewed as lacking communication skills, management can leverage their greater emotional intelligence to achieve similar results. The key is to make everyone feel valued.

Businesses can't thrive when they don't consider all their staff as valuable contributors, and that means working from the top down to include women, minorities, and older staff, and modeling such inclusion. It's not necessarily an easy task - for many, inclusion means going against their conversational instincts - but it's practice that can give your business a strategic edge.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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