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DEAR COREY: I consider myself an intelligent, accomplished young woman. I get good grades. I aced my SATs and am an accomplished musician. My problem is I'm afraid I project an image that is too "girly" or immature. I have a naturally high voice and people seem surprised when they learn how well I do in school and in extracurricular activities. Sometimes I'm tempted to prove them wrong, but I'm also worried about the impression I give professors, employers and those who matter. How do I present myself more professionally so that people will take me seriously without sacrificing my femininity? -- STUDENT IN OBERLIN, OHIO
DEAR STUDENT: It appears you are generally having problems with the perceptions of those around you. More specifically, you are concerned with facework. Facework is the attempt to present a desired image based on the given situation through the use of verbal and nonverbal communication (Walsh, Gregory, Lake, & Gunawardena, 2003). For you, presenting a professional image to those in authority is the goal. According to your letter, you feel that some of your feminine, womanly traits may be the main barrier to your desired professional image. I am responding to your letter to present you with some useful, research-proven tips to improve the nonverbal and verbal presentation of your desired image. Before I do that, I want to discuss the details of the general perceptions of women in society which could be causing your problem.
Unfortunately, women are plagued with sex discrimination in multiple areas of their lives. The workforce, for instance, consists of many road blocks, also called glass ceilings for women (Cech & Blair-Loy, 2010). For instance, one female interviewed stated that "My record was never questioned (nor my ability); it was simply a matter of their inability to take me seriously because of my sex (and despite my qualifications)" (Rush, Oukrop, Sarikakis, Andsager, et al., 2005, p. 155). According to Cech and Blair-Loy (2010), it is more difficult for women than men to meet workplace expectations as well as receive credit when expectations are met or exceeded. Furthermore, to maintain ones feminine qualities while succeeding in the workplace is a complicated task that requires women to walk a fine line (Cech & Blair-Loy, 2010). In your letter, you seemed also concerned with the way your professors perceive you. The academic setting can be just as difficult for women as the workplace. For instance, another female interviewed noted "I wasn't turned down, but I was discouraged despite my record. The Dean of the Graduate School suggested I go home where I belonged since I had a man to feed me" (Rush et al., 2005, p. 155). This is a glaring example of sex discrimination. However, in many cases sex discrimination is more like the following situation described by another interviewed female:
It's subtle. I don't consider the male leadership on campus as consisting of 'male chauvinists,' but â€¦ if you're a white male, then you're most likely to feel comfortable with another white male and so on. They're not comfortable socializing with us. (Rush et al., 2005 p. 170)
Despite this evidence that it is more difficult to succeed and be recognized as a woman, there are two strategies that can easily be applied to your situation: your use of clothing and language to convey a more professional message to those in authority.
"Consciously or subconsciously, individuals dress to project an image. Or, perhaps more accurately, they project an image by how they dress" (Lukes, 2009, p. 253). Although you did not specifically mention a problem with others' perceptions of how you dress, it can have an impact on your perceived professionalism. For instance, Lukes has maintained that attire is extremely important not only for first impressions but also future opportunities. For you, clothing may be a message you have not even considered to be a problem. Many women in a study done by Guy and Banim (2000) stated that they used specific work outfits to project qualities that were important in their workplace. For instance, a woman interviewed in that study said that a particular outfit:
â€¦ makes me feel confident - sure of myself and my position. I feel in charge. Also because I feel smart it frees me from thinking about [my] appearance so that I am able to get on with the job in hand. (Guy & Banim, 2000, p. 316)
Your clothes can send a message of organization, or lack thereof. Another woman in the study done by Guy and Banim realized that clothes that easily crease and wrinkle are not appropriate for work because they convey that she is disheveled. Furthermore, it is important to make sure the clothes you wear in professional situations do not send a message that is overly sexual. Sheila, yet another woman who participated in an interview with Guy and Banim, said that she had "â€¦ already come to the conclusion that if I expected people to view me as more than 'a piece of meat' I needed to avoid unwelcome attention with my clothes. Tough but true!" (p. 319). As for practical advice, Ann Taylor is a store that specializes in professional dress for women. The sales associates there can give you even more specific tips. If you avoid the pitfalls of disorganized and overly sexual dress, you will avoid the situation described by Lukes (2009) in which verbal and visual communication send opposite messages to the recipient.
Once you are conveying messages of professionalism through your clothes, you should also be verbally professional. In your letter, you were concerned about the message your high pitched voice sends. However, since the pitch of your voice is largely biological, I believe it is more important to understand and effectively use appropriate language in professional settings. As far as the differences in communication that impact professional discourse, Tannen (as cited in Sheridan, 2007), has shown that women use conversation to establish intimacy, but men often use conversation to establish dominance. Therefore, my advice is not to give up your feminine tendencies to foster close relationships in conversation, but to remember to also stand strong and not always allow others to establish dominance in that conversation. According to Sheridan (2007), another difference between the way men and women communicate is that women tend to use more hedges (language to weaken claims) and epistemic modal words (language used to convey you're not completely certain about something). In light of this research, my advice is to remember to stay verbally confident. When you know what you're talking about, say it like you mean it. On the subject of humor, women's humor style is often shown as self mocking, and men's humor style can be perceived by women as hostile (Sheridan, 2007). The old adage "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" applies to your communication about yourself as well. Don't put yourself down, for it will encourage others to believe what you are saying jokingly is true. Each statement of advice I have presented in this section comes with a caution. As mentioned earlier, it can be extremely difficult to strike a balance of femininity and assertiveness in professional settings. Therefore, I encourage you to base your language on the situational context.
Despite the evidence that women are at a disadvantage to appear professional, there are definite ways for you to control the image which you present to those in authority. By controlling the nonverbal message your clothing sends as well as the verbal message your language sends, you should be well on your way to improving your image. Perhaps you will be one of the women able to break the glass ceiling.