Photo Credit: Fausto Sandoval via Unsplash

Should we rewrite women’s emailing style?

By Ruby Veronica

Ruby Veronica explains why women’s emailing style is not a problem, but the response to it is.

Assuming the author of an email is female, based solely on linguistic evidence, such as vocabulary choices or intonations, would be as silly as choosing pink to wear because it is the social expectation for a girl. However, this seems to be the case even in professional work environments filled with supposedly sophisticated individuals. A social experiment was conducted in Pennsylvania in 2017, where a male and female colleague secretly switched email signatures for a week to test if their different vocabulary choices and intonations would cause any difference in treatment with clients and other co-workers. The male colleague stated “I was in hell, everything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single.” Things changed immediately when he revealed to the clients that they were in fact talking to a man instead of “Nicole” whom he’d signed off as. The clients “became model clients”. This experiment illustrates the invisible workplace advantage of being a man. Not only did this experiment prove the enduring existence of implicit sexism, but it also highlights the need for de-gendering within the workplace. 

Degendering, according to Judith Lorber, seeks to dismantle the effects of gender by

not “gendering” in the first place, thereby taking the best masculine-coded and feminine-coded practices without the socially constructed, gendered, perceptions. Lorber suggests seeing beyond gender and to assume the best of both masculinity and femininity. This would suggest seeing linguistic presentation positively: for example, exclamation marks should only suggest excitement or heavy emphasis. The phrase “if that makes sense” should be regarded as politeness rather than uncertainty, and email signatures should only be a reference to the person writing the email rather than a chance to display dominance over the opposite gender. 

Words should be taken only for their meaning instead of something far-reaching. While we are promoting gender equality, it is crucial to not neglect subtle, yet common, sexual discrimination. In the guideline given by the European Institute for Gender Equality, the logic behind using gender-neutral expressions is that if we are treating women and men as equal, gender is “irrelevant” to the discussion and we should not state it explicitly. To push this idea even more, the consideration of gender in a professional environment would be a way of diminishing that environment’s overall professionalism. This is because, after all, it is the last thing that should be considered influential. 

What if all women acted like men? Would that be a more effective way of tackling

covert sexism in the workplace? Carlee Barackman would say no. According to a 2019 Global News article, Carlee Barackman’s writing style, when it came to work emails, is “short and to the point” which had become an issue. She mentioned that there were several times that she was called by the CEO to discuss her “harsh” language. As a response, Barackman 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 keep my replies short and direct everyone would assume I was angry,” such worry would be faced by many more professional females, as the article stated this is not an isolated incident. 

So if being more “masculine” isn’t the answer to covert sexism in the workplace, perhaps we could use reverse psychology to untangle the knot. It almost seems impossible to balance politeness and masculinity yet this logic implies males as the dominant, authoritative gender automatically, and corresponding females as inferior, meek and cooperative. Patriarchy allows men to be impolite, direct, demanding and commanding, whereas females are forced to be polite, indirect, and responsive to their demands or god forbid, be branded “difficult to work with”. The answer to a degendered workplace is to forego any masculine traits or feminine traits and focus solely on what is said. To see past gender would effectively avoid any uneven gender dynamic in any professional work environment. While we have been working hard to strive for gender equality, according to a 2022 sexual harassment study, 72% of women had personally encountered or witnessed inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues at work, and 67% of women had experienced gender discrimination in some form.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the wider issue that female capabilities and professionalism are not compromised by opting for a softer discourse, should they choose to do so.


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