Effective Communication in a Male-Dominated Workplace

Communication is an intrinsic element of our existence—it’s how we build our relationships, how we share vital information, how we solve our conflicts and even how we fortify our sense of self. If 10,000 hours makes an expert, we would all be master communicators by the age of 5. It can be easy then, to overestimate our communication savvy. However, effective communication is not just a skill, it’s volatile terrain—evolving with every shift in time, place, personality, and situation—and adapting to these dynamic conditions is not always an effortless endeavour.

The effects of miscommunication range from inconvenient to detrimental and, while constant vigilance would be unrealistic and unproductive, due diligence is beneficial and sometimes essential in professional contexts. This is especially true for women in male dominated workspaces, where foreign communication norms and the pressure to prove yourself can be barriers to effective communication.

Effective communication in the workplace enables you to work efficiently, build strong relationships with your co-workers and help you feel like you belong. However, men and women are socialised at an early age to communicate in different, sometimes even opposing ways, and this can lead to a significant disconnect between the genders.

Too often, women in male-dominated industries such as the trades are encouraged to adopt the “masculine” way of doing things. This suggestion is not completely baseless—the culture of these industries has been established and reinforced by several generations of men, and it would be unreasonable to expect an immediate shift. Some women may find it easiest to ‘go along to get along,’ and while that may work in the short term, it could be unsustainable in the long run—negatively affecting your job satisfaction, your productivity, or your mental health. Becoming ‘one of the boys’ also supresses the many valuable strengths and skills developed by your own unique experiences. Likewise, there are many beneficial characteristics of “masculine” communication. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to actively refine and expand your communication style. An excellent first step towards this goal would be to understand the way gender influences our understanding of socially acceptable communication.

From an early age, men and women are socialised to communicate in opposing ways. In general, girls are taught modesty and subtlety while boys are taught confidence and directness.

While individuals are influenced by these lessons to different degrees and in diverse ways, it also develops a shared understanding of communication rituals.

If a co-worker were to ask: “How was your weekend,” it seems obvious to reciprocate the question at the end of your response. This is a widely recognised ritual and failing to complete the ritual by asking your co-worker about their own weekend may make you seem disinterested and self-absorbed—even if that is not necessarily true.

But these communication rituals are not universally known, and the rituals men and women have, even those that serve the same function, can be vastly different.

For men, it is common practice to explore ideas by challenging them and arguing against an opposing view—playing devil’s advocate. To women unaware of the ritual, it may be perceived as discouragement or dismissal.

Similarly, women commonly talk about their accomplishments self-depreciatingly, expecting others to understand the modesty and counter it with praise. However, the unknowing man may remain unaware of the accomplishment or lower their esteem of it based on interpreting a perceived lack of confidence. For the most part, these men are not deliberately being rude or condescending, but are simply ignorant of the communication ritual that has been started. These misunderstandings can lead to situations that cause a breakdown of efficiency, or worse, dangerous, preventable accidents.

A few ways to minimise these difficulties are: 

  • Teach Them Your Rituals

Have you noticed your co-workers regularly missing the cues or failing to complete the communication rituals you start? Consider teaching them your rituals. They may not adopt them; however, it can significantly clarify their understanding of your interactions, strengthen your relationships, and enable more effective communication.

  • Learn Their Rituals

Being aware of the communication rituals of the men around you can help you navigate workplace communication. Sometimes, you may feel comfortable with adopting this ritual, but this is by no means essential. The communication rituals of men and women may be different, but they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Observe without Judgement

Some communication rituals among men can seem harsh, and you may feel uncomfortable participating or condoning this behaviour. However, if the ritual is consensual, it is important to observe without judgement. These rituals may be a vital part of your co-workers’ communication and treating it with derision can diminish your relationships and lead to an unwillingness to express themselves in front of you, which could make you feel isolated.

Unfortunately, while many conflicts can be avoided with clear communication, others stem from deep rooted prejudices.

Banter is a consensual and mutually enjoyable trade of playful teasing or battles of wit that create and maintain strong bonds that boost morale, productivity, and creativity. But when jokes enter the realm of biology, sexuality, race, or religion, they can have damaging effects on mental health, team morale and open communication. Even if there is no intention to harm with one of these “jokes,” the damage they cause cannot be excused and may be impossible to repair.

It can be hard to stand up for yourself or others when you notice the line being crossed, and there are many unflattering labels assigned to people who “can’t take a joke.” However, everyone deserves to feel safe in their workplace.

If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of someone else’s line, it is important to acknowledge and apologise for your mistake and commit to doing better in the future—without implying an expectation for forgiveness.

If you see someone else crossing the line, or you find your own lines being crossed, it may be best to have a serious conversation with the offender about your feelings. If this does not yield a change in behaviour, it may be best to take that important conversation up the chain of command.

Having an important conversation with a higher authority can be daunting and going into it unprepared can undermine your intentions. Therefore, it can be immensely helpful to make communication decisions before broaching the subject. Of course, the decisions you make should be tailored to the context of the conversation, and there are many reasons you may find yourself needing to have an important conversation other than conflict resolution. Regardless of the specifics of your situation, these are some questions to guide your decision making:

  • What are your goals for this conversation?

Are you making a request? Expressing a readiness for more responsibility? Registering a complaint? Seeking support for a workplace conflict? What you want to get out of this conversation will affect your method of communication and being aware of this can help you make conscious decisions to present your message in the most effective way.

  • Why is this important?

After clarifying your desired outcome, delve deeper into why you want this. Do you feel your accomplishments are going unnoticed? Are you being disrespected by your co-workers? Are events in your personal life driving you to make changes in your work life?

Often, the reasons for having important conversations have strong emotions at their core, and while it is unnecessary to suppress these feelings, some methods of expression can be unprofessional or undermine your message. Clarity on why you are seeking a particular outcome can prevent your conversation from being derailed or ending with a compromise that meets the surface of your message but not its core.

  • Who should be part of this conversation?

It may seem obvious, but it is important to ensure you choose the right person to communicate your message to. Can you address your conflict directly with the other party? Sometimes, bringing your conflict to a superior can seem like an open invitation for mockery, but if you have tried to resolve a conflict to no avail, it is important and appropriate to escalate the issue with someone who has the authority to intervene.

Learning to communicate effectively in a male dominated workplace is essential to your success, and it is as much about listening as it is about speaking. It may not be easy, but— if you communicate with respect and assert your own right to be respected—it can be incredibly rewarding.