The sexist expectations of professional emails for women: ‘There’s no winning’

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Carlee Barackman was working at a tech startup in Detroit, Michigan, when her email writing style — which she calls “short and to the point” — became an issue.

In the two years that Barackman had been working there, the company had grown from just three people to a large group.

As a result of the growth, more of the team-wide communication moved off Slack and into email, which Barackman considered the right place for a more formal messaging style.

“Slack brings out the casual in anyone… so on the occasions we would email, I would flip a switch to come off as professional as possible,” she told Global News.

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“I was trying to communicate… efficiently and directly, which means I cut out extra adjectives and some extra exclamation points, for example.”

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language.

“[He] pointed to an instance when I didn’t show ‘enough appreciation’ for a co-worker’s performance,” Barackman told Global News.

While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it.

“I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out.

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“He addressed this specific email and asked that I include something to lighten it up, such as an exclamation point, so that the recipient knew I was happy about the work done,” she said.

Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant.

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It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said.

“I felt stuck. [I was] worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional and [I was] also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

“The rest of the time at the company, I avoided emailing. I would get up and talk to people directly or just not reply.”

Barackman isn’t the only woman who has had an experience like this.

(Editor’s note: When we asked Twitter users if they’ve ever felt this way, the response was overwhelming. Read some of their stories below.)

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According to Megan Boler, a professor in the department of social justice education at the University of Toronto, this experience is likely common because the workplace is a traditionally masculine environment.

“Language is one aspect of our broader culture… and certainly within language and culture, are embedded all sorts of expectations and norms around gender,” she said.

For women in the workplace, the expectations are contradictory.

“On the one hand, women are culturally expected to be emotional caretakers and nurturers, and… all of those roles have historically been understood as appropriate in the private sphere, taking care of children in the home,” Boler said.

In contrast, men have traditionally occupied the public sphere.

“When women buck tradition and move into the public sphere, there’s this double standard… where [they aren’t] emotional enough, and yet, when [they do] express emotion, they’re penalized,” she said.
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Boler sees this double standard every day in her email correspondence with students, and she says the impact is twofold if your name is associated with another race.

“If the name is perceived as ‘ethnically coded’ in some way, there’s… a much greater chance of discrimination,” said Boler.

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Etiquette expert Lisa Orr agrees.

“I wish I could say that gender didn’t play a role in communication, but, in reality, there is extensive research to show that men and women communicate differently, and those differences can really impact the way we understand each other in the workplace,” she said.

However, in her experience working with professionals, Orr recommends a different way of seeing these gendered differences.

“Regardless of gender, the key is to understand your own communication style and that of your email recipient so that you can try to communicate in a way that will make the recipient respond positively to your communication.”

This advice is similar to that of Boler.

In her view, the only way to move past this contradiction is for women to learn the importance of not taking things personally.

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“It’s trying to understand that there is this kind of no-win setup for women… and so, perhaps [you] shouldn’t spend as much time as [you do] worrying about tone,” she said.
In her experience, Boler has found that women in the workplace more often suffer from imposter syndrome, which she describes as having “an incredible amount of experience… [but] constantly experiencing a kind of doubt about [your] choices and decisions.”

She believes this is not the fault of women but of the system within which they exist.

“It’s because… we’re constantly getting feedback that we’re doing things wrong, and in fact, there’s nothing wrong,” said Boler.

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“So, I think there’s an aspect of just not taking it personally and knowing that it isn’t about me… You have to see that there is a structural problem.” 

That’s exactly what Janu Y. — a 28-year-old communications professional in Toronto — has done. She refers to herself as a “former message softener.”

“I always felt like I needed to be softer or kinder in my approach because I was so afraid as coming off bitchy,” Janu told Global News.

It wasn’t until she became a full-time freelancer that Janu realized it was acceptable (and, in some cases, necessary) to cut the fluff out of her emails.

“A lot of what I was saying was being lost in translation,” she said. “I would be taken advantage of, or not taken seriously.”

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Now, as a marketing co-ordinator in the technology industry, Janu is concentrating on “commanding her ship.”

READ MORE: What to do if you’re touched inappropriately at work

I stopped softening my emails because I didn’t need to shrink myself for the comfort of others. If someone is uncomfortable with me, and I haven’t personally done or said anything to them, they need to take that up with themselves,” she said. 

“At the end of the day, I say what needs to be said and I get my job done.”

In Janu’s view, this shift in perspective has brought her a lot closer to her career goals.

“Why is it that when a woman says it like it is, in the most professional way possible, that she’s still seen as a bitch but when a man does, he’s a boss? And that’s really it — I’m trying to be a boss,” she said.

“I’m trying to grow in my career so I can truly make space for people that look and sound like me: people of colour, people that were raised in low-income areas, people that didn’t always have the work experience, refugees, immigrants… we are extremely valuable and our world view is as well.”

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Ultimately, the change has been empowering for Janu.

“Through being vulnerable enough to command my space both in real life and online, [I] better understand the value I bring to the table. Hell, sometimes I am the table.”

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In Orr’s view, there are surefire tips for writing a professional email — regardless of your gender.

“Professional emails should always be specific, concise and forwardable,” Orr told Global News.

Be specific

Make sure the topic of your email is immediately obvious.

“Your subject line should highlight the purpose of your email… [and] in the body of the email, make it clear what you’re asking for,” she said.

Orr recommends using bullet points as a clear way to get your point across.

Be concise

“Keep your emails to five sentences or less — three if you can,” Orr said.

Keeping it brief will allow for your reader to get your message quickly, and it will improve the chances of your entire message being read.

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“Should you need more than five sentences, attach a memo or document to provide a more thorough explanation.”

Assume it will be forwarded

“That means no gossip, and use appropriate language,” said Orr.

In collaborative work environments, email communication is never really private.

“The last thing you want is some embarrassing inside joke making its way around the office and coming back to bite you.”

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