Dnika J. Travis, PhD
Effective communication is how we connect with one another—including across differences. It’s how we lead others. Effective communication is how women work together to make positive change in our lives, communities, and workplaces.
Yet our words can stifle connection or derail meaningful dialogue before it even begins. Our words can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about a person’s or group’s identity, gender, race or ethnicity, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, religion, cultural background, or some other dimension.
Even with the best intention, our words can hurt, especially in difficult, emotionally charged, or high-stakes conversations. The impact can be far-reaching and can affect business outcomes in unforeseen ways.
Catalyst’s “Flip the Script” research series offers examples of common phrases that can be damaging, offensive, and disempowering in our daily lives. The series provides recommendations for course correction and leverages research insights to help people understand why certain phrases are harmful.
For instance, in the series, a woman is told she lacks “gravitas,” or a person of color is asked, “How did you get this position?” These examples can undermine a woman’s leadership and reinforce stereotypes about a woman’s qualifications.
Alternatively, in more fraught conversations, people may say you are being “sensitive,” or they may say, “That happened to me, too, but I’m not complaining.” Statements like these can sound dismissive and devalue another’s experience, rather than promote understanding and connection building.
Women must flip the script not only to create more inclusive workplaces and stronger connections across differences but also to demonstrate ways women can serve as allies for one another. This requires
• being able to see and validate each other’s points of view and experiences;
• being curious and open to seeking understanding;
• practicing self-reflection and owning your mistakes—beyond thinking your good intentions give a pass to saying something harmful, even unintentionally; and
• realizing certain groups have access to privileges that others don’t.
If you are on the receiving end of or a bystander to biased comments, you have choices. You can respond in the moment or later. You can clarify intent by asking, “Help me understand what you meant.” Or you can provide direction for what’s appropriate and what’s not.
Although the onus should not be on marginalized groups to make change, there are opportunities to dialogue further, learn, and bridge differences.
We all have a responsibility to use our spheres of influence to amplify women’s voices, validate each other’s experiences, and create opportunities for marginalized groups to flourish and contribute. A starting point is to think differently about the impact of our words—because change can happen one conversation at a time. DW
Dr. Dnika J. Travis, vice president, research, is a recognized researcher, educator, and change leader who leads research initiatives and manages content creation at Catalyst.
Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most
powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.