The Gendered Politics of Writing An Email


Women occupy more leadership roles, but we still face unfair expectations. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

One of the Ram’s many quirks is the time period that we change staff. Unlike most clubs at Fordham, our positions last for a calendar year instead of an academic one. So that meant this winter break I was preparing to assume my new role as editor in chief in January. 

During this time, we dealt with normal transition items: organizing staff, setting up training, making schedules and transferring accounts. One day, while doing this planning from the comfort of my home in Maryland, I was writing a text message to one of my colleagues on the Ram about a training session we were setting up. I opened the text message with the phrase “I think,” but quickly went back on myself and deleted “I think” because I didn’t “think” what I was about to say — I knew it.  

The perception of those in charge in the workplace is shifting. Women, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals continue to break glass ceilings every day, but the reality is society continues to socialize many people, specifically women, not to take leadership roles in the workplace. Women, in general, use less assertive language than men. We tend to use a lot of qualifiers and mechanisms to weaken our arguments. Assertive, confrontational and strong women are often perceived as aggressive and rude. It’s a pervasive double standard, where men use the exact same words and are perceived as confident, good leaders. This has profound effects because advice or statements from women are taken less seriously, which is partly attributed to this non-assertive language. And for me, in my new role (but truthfully, in my role before this as News Editor), it’s been hard to shake my safe words when writing emails or dealing with people. 

The classic one that I am guilty of is using the phrase “I think” instead of “I know” or not using any opener at all and just saying the facts. Using phrases like “I think” inherently makes you sound unsure and waters down an argument before it’s even said. Not to mention, when you say something, it’s implied that you think it. The phrase acts like a crutch; it invites people to correct me, even when I’m sure of what I’m saying. That’s not to say it’s not important to voice ideas or thoughts to people, but it is used too often as an unnecessary caveat to known sentences and facts. 

I find myself using other small words or phrases to soften the blow of my messages. I use the phrase, “I’m just checking in” or “I’m just confirming,”  instead of saying, “I’m confirming,” because using “just” sounds like I’m politely knocking on someone’s door rather than I’m banging. Exclamation points are a good friend when trying to make a message sound more upbeat and less confrontational. Overemphasizing phrases like “no worries” or “it’s totally okay,” despite sometimes things not being “totally okay.” I apologize all the time, even when I don’t have something to be sorry for. I feel the need to thank everyone for simply emailing me, which can also be completely unnecessary. 

There is still a time and place for these types of words and phrases. As a person, especially as a leader, you should apologize when necessary. You should be gentle when the situation warrants it. You shouldn’t display things that you are unsure of as fact. It’s okay to “think” rather than “know” things. You should let people know when they haven’t done anything wrong. Understanding what tone to strike in a specific situation is a quality of a good leader and something people should always strive to achieve. However, too often, women resort to these phrases to take a weaker, less assertive tone when unnecessary because of how we were socialized to act. 

Changing the way we view language is a barrier that we have yet to overcome. While the perception of the way people communicate is changing, the way we communicate is ingrained in our society. And it’s pervasive. It’s an issue that affects so many women. I cannot count the times my friends and I have talked about how we communicate and how we are constantly noticing places where we water down what we are trying to say. One of my best friends and I once spent an hour-long walk discussing this topic. 

For the past few months, I have been reviewing every email I send with a critical eye, and I think about things before I say them. The things that I have to say are worthwhile, and they should be interpreted the way I want them to be because I am qualified to be in the role I am in. They should not be watered-down or changed because I do not want anyone to interpret me in a negative light. Women are strong and capable of the roles they are put into, and that should be reflected in the way we speak.

Isabel Danzis, FCRH ’24, is a journalism and digital technologies and emerging media major from Bethesda, Md.