Women in the workplace have fought an unfair and uphill battle for respect and equality from the very start.

They’ve made tremendous progress over the years, but there is still a long way to go. Men still get more money and greater leadership opportunities than women, and many of the old foes — sexism, misogyny, gender bias, stereotypes — are, unbelievably, still in play.

And yet a woman’s biggest enemy today is sometimes … herself.

Cheryl Duvall says that enemy often takes the form of subtle, sometimes unspoken, often unconscious messages that woman send as they communicate with others.

Duvall is founder of Avance LLC, a consulting firm that links workplace design with organization development. She is also one of the Business Learning Institute’s newest instructors and will be leading a BLI program on Nov. 10 titled “Exploring Communication Styles of Women: Strengthening the Female Voice in Accounting.”

Her message is clear: Communication matters, especially for women.

“Because of the way many of us have been raised and the subtle messages that were given to us very early on, we do experience gender bias, whether we are aware of it or not,” Duvall told me in a recent phone interview. “That bias has existed for a very long time and has shaped a lot of the ways we communicate and relate to others, both in our personal lives and our work relationships.”

Want an example? Consider the number of times women apologize when they have no reason to be sorry:

“Don’t say you’re sorry for something you did not have any control over,” Duvall said. “Using that kind of language makes us look weak or not as competent as we are. It might come out as ‘I’m sorry, I don’t agree with that.’ Why are you sorry? Just say you don’t agree with that. It’s just a slight difference, but the word choice is very important.”

Communication choices like that are especially important in traditionally male-dominated professions like accounting, where women are woefully under-represented in leadership positions.

So how do we improve those lines of communication?

Duvall says the first step is simple awareness. Be aware of what your words, your presence, and your body language say about you.

The next step? Stop underestimating yourself. Take a seat at the table. Put yourself in positions that will help you succeed. Do that often enough, Duvall says, and “you’ll find out quite quickly that you do have the confidence and ability to get this done.”

Listen to my conversation with Duvall in its entirety.

Want to learn more?
Don’t miss Duvall’s program “Exploring Communication Styles of Women: Strengthening the Female Voice in Accounting,” slated for 4 to 6 p.m. on Nov. 10 at the BWI Marriott. Get further information and register here.

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