Have you noticed how often you use the word “just” in a professional context, particularly emails? I’ve been thinking about why I use it so much in tricky situations and if it’s something that women use more than men.
I often find myself using it when I feel like I’m being annoying to a client (while I’m trying to do my job), for example, “I just wanted to check in with you about…” or “I’m just following up on…”. It makes the sentence feel like a smaller inconvenience, like what I’m really saying is “I’m sliding this tiny little thing it into your stack of to-dos but it’s not a big deal” while batting my eyelashes.
Using “just” helps to make me feel like I’m less of a nuisance. But I’m doing my job, so why should I want to feel like this? While it might seem like “just” smooths the path for requests, it also makes us appear small; it diminishes respect for our work and ourselves. Why shouldn’t we take up as much space in someone’s to-do list as anything else?
Compare the same phrases without “just”: “I’d like to check in with you about…” and “I’m following up on…”. Do you hear how much more clear and direct the requests are? It’s as if you’ve sat up straight while asking. That’s what a professional relationship should be.
Ellen Leanse, a former Google executive wrote a 2015 LinkedIn blog about the word “just”, when she noticed women (including herself) using it way more than men, and how she tackled it in her office. She began to notice that “just” wasn’t about being polite,
“it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”
Try this experiment, which we also did in our team. Search or read through your emails for the next couple of days and count the number of times “just” appears. Notice why you used it and how it changes the tone when you remove it. We were astounded by how often we use it and have committed to clarity and confidence by removing it.
Liz Fletcher is the co-owner of Pomegranite, a boutique online presence consultancy which she set up with her business partner Sarah Gurney, in 2013. The pair met studying English literature together at Rhodes University and grew the business through developing thoughtful storytelling on digital platforms.
The Pomegranite offices in Cape Town and Joburg service clients which are predominantly in the SME, NGO and education sectors.
Liz gets a kick out of bringing the magic out in her team and developing systems and plans that help the business run smoothly.
Oh, so this is what they were talking about when they discussed sexism in the working world. It usually wasn’t particularly overt, several people who witnessed it probably didn’t even notice, and some who did thought it was pretty funny; some good banter.
I had made it through my undergrad without ever having to do any group work. However, I was recently part of a team with a definite power hierarchy and a formal working structure. This year’s senior leadership body was comprised only of men, and initially I saw no problem with this. We’re a very liberal group. We stand on the right side of issues of oppression and discrimination. However, throughout the process of working in this team, certain situations arose that made me feel deeply uncomfortable: they contribute to the discourse surrounding sexism in work environments. Once I’d had some distance from the group I was able to reflect, and what I looked back on was highly problematic.
It’s important to remember that sexism is almost never going to involve your boss standing in front of you saying, ‘You are a woman, therefore you are inferior to all the men here’. Instead, it will be a series of trends that, when examined together, show women consistently undermined in various subtle ways. Patriarchy is powerful, it’s built into how we speak and how we act, but there’s a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves so we don’t propagate the kinds of misogynistic behaviour I experienced.
When I started to reflect, I realised that the two people the group leader had the biggest issues with were women. They were both women who executed their jobs really well. They were women with strong personalities: so they were labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘stubborn’. They disagreed with the group leader on some of his decisions. I didn’t find the fact that there had been disagreements problematic; no one is going to agree all the time. However, I found the manner in which these disagreements or conflicts were handled, particularly so. When these women voiced their opinions over the table as supposed ‘equals’, these were often disregarded in light of their ‘difficult and unreasonable’ viewpoints. A lot of the team saw these women, who were brought on board for their expertise in their respective fields, being publically undermined in meetings, and did nothing.
Then there was the time when I disagreed with the way my work was handled. Instead of my concerns being respectfully listened to and considered, the leader sent me a picture of his name and title, and I was told that this ‘isn’t a democracy’. I was then told to stop being so ‘emotional and sensitive’. My rational concerns were reduced to my temperament. I was later told to be mature. For decades, women’s concerns have been reduced to infantile irrationalities. Small actions like this speak to how women are professionally undermined. It is the compounding of these small instances that do great damage to how women are seen (by men and other women) and how women see themselves in workplace environments.
And then there was the time when the sexual relationships of people in the group were discussed in a working Whatsapp chat. No one shut down the inappropriate and offensive jokes that sprang up from this. Comments like, ‘oh, that is poes funny’ were used. Using ‘poes’ is problematic enough, using ‘poes’ in response to slut shaming made me deeply uncomfortable. Anything that contains a ‘bros/hos’ binary is problematic, especially when done in a seemingly professional context.
Something we released for public viewing was called out for having homophobic undertones. Nothing constructive was done in response to these allegations, and those who raised the concerns were ridiculed behind the scenes. Laughing at anyone who’s standing up for gay rights is not okay.
Throughout this experience I was so tempted to justify why I had a legitimate reason to be frustrated. Yes, I was directly affected, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be objective. So often the victims of discrimination feel the need to defend ourselves to prove that we aren’t crazy, that it is real, that we have a right to be upset – and this is dangerous. I know I’m not subjectively twisting and fabricating the truth, nor was this article written out of angry emotion, despite accusations to that effect. This is an article about how easy it is to be part of the problem and what I’ve learned from my experience.
I’ve learned that people who are perfectly nice can be extremely misogynistic and oblivious to their role in propagating patriarchy by undermining, dismissing, and slut shaming the women on their team. I’ve learned that most people simply won’t understand why you’re upset when these instances make you uncomfortable. I’ve learned that far too much is defended in the name of a joke, too many ideals forgotten for a moment of banter. However, I’m not the only one who saw these things. I’ve spoken to various people on the team who hold varying levels of power and when pressed a lot of them agree with me. But if so many of us were uncomfortable, why didn’t any of us speak out sooner? Everyone needs to speak out when someone is being targeted; a disrespectful act is never small. Surely we’ve evolved from letting the popular kids pick on someone? What is it about a group dynamic that allows for such unacceptable interactions to take place? I think a strong responsibility rests on leadership to set the boundaries for social interactions, I think there needs to be a definite line of what constitutes ‘going too far’. I think that line was absent. I don’t see the senior leadership body as a homogenous group of sexist men; I know that isn’t true. A lot of the sexism was propagated unintentionally, but lack of awareness is not a sufficient excuse.
That being said, I’m horribly disappointed in myself for not speaking out sooner. But it’s hard to go against a group dynamic and sometimes it’s hard to realize how problematic a situation is until you’ve had some distance to reflect on exactly what it was that made you uncomfortable. And it’s also important to remember that even though I didn’t speak out enough at the time, those who propagated the wrongs and I are not equally guilty.
Sometimes people aren’t receptive to being called out and can get ugly and defensive. Don’t let someone intimidate you as they try shift blame from their own discriminatory actions to your uncomfortable silence.
We are the future leaders of this country. Our interpersonal relationships have to be conducive to the society we want to live in. No sexism, or racism or homophobia can ever be tolerated for a joke. Let’s not write essays about a just society and then act in a way that destroys that future in our next social interaction.
I am one of those women who grew up looking up to Khanyi Dhlomo. I’ve been following her since her days at SABC. I still find her to be a great inspiration to me and many other women out there.
It’s been a while since Khanyi has made it. Maybe it is possible that she’s reached that point in life where she can look back and laugh at all obstacles she never thought she overcome in life.
I respect and admire her business acumen as a woman. I applaud her for taking time to do live chats with many of her admirers through Destiny Magazine connect online. With all her achievements she has held onto her humility and warmth which comes through even in her voice.
This week I listened to her radio interview on 702 with John Robbie following the granting of millions for her Luminance luxury store. Many people are very unhappy for different reasons about the funding of this project by the National Empowerment Fund. In her interview Khanyi said she was disappointed at the uproar this has caused. Like I said before, it’s been a while since she’s made it. Her realities are very different from many South African entrepreneurs.
I am an entrepreneur myself having founded and running Rain Queen House full-time now. I am very far from Khanyi’s league but we have our passion, drive and determination in common, along with many outstanding women entrepreneurs I interact with on a daily basis. Just like Khanyi many of these women have track records that speak on their behalf and achieved big things all on their own. Although they tick many boxes correct and meet financial assistance criteria, they struggle to get even a R1 from the NEF.
Khanyi hasn’t done anything irregular. She was granted what she asked from a business financing agency and she qualifies. The issue here seems to be the fact that she was granted the entire budget of this agency and selectively. She might be disappointed at the way the public has received this news but I am not expecting her to understand that she is a victim of selective funding by government agencies. The issue is how the NEF approaches the issue of who it chooses to grand funding. Hopefully this will be explained when it is dealt with by Parliament.
The selective funding perception was not created overnight by the NEF’s decision. Seemingly the NYDA, SEDA and local government SMMEs funding agencies have been doing it for years. Last month the NYDA was criticized for spending nearly R20 million to buy equipment for a company belonging to famous DJs. Recently Reserve Bank Governor, Gill Marcus, was reported to have begged firms to employ young people. Youth unemployment is this country is at an unacceptable level at 50%. It would be great to have one government minister advocating for SMMEs and youth entrepreneurial initiatives. Future employment depends on the survival of small enterprises and creation of entrepreneurship.
The name of Khanyi Dlhomo is a power brand. The scales were largely tipped in her favour as soon as her name was put forward on the application for this fund. Perhaps after this experience she can workshop with women entrepreneurs on how one successfully bids for business funding. Maybe this will dispel the notion many of us have of South African business funding. Exhausting business funding agencies’ budgets on those who have already established themselves only create jobs for very few people. We need commitment from government to start investing in potential and focus on empowering promising entrepreneurs.