Hello. I'm Aimee Ault.

"Woman in a Meeting" Speak and Its Role in Software Development

Last week, I came across an article on Buzzfeed on the subject of “Woman in a Meeting” speak. It was all about the idea of women sugar-coating their opinions in business settings out of concern that they will come across as brash or bitchy. That article stemmed from a Washington Post article in which famous historical quotes were re-imagined as if they were spoken by women in business meetings.

The topic hit very close to home for me. Not because I am guilty of it–in fact, if I look through my most recent exchanges with others, I am fairly strong-willed and blunt in how I share my opinions with others. I occasionally use emojis. I occasionally say “haha” when it’s appropriate because I like for people to know I’m not a robot.

However, I stand by the points I make generally and don’t make excuses for them. Why? Because a fairly large part of my job is providing critical feedback to others. I simply can’t afford to hem and haw on my opinions, because people rely on me to know what I’m talking about. This isn’t me being arrogant. Being cutesy about it would only give others pause about my ability to provide assistance, so it has no place in my exchanges with others.

But I didn’t always speak bluntly. It’s a strength I passively developed as I grew as a software developer and I think it’s really important that you develop good communication habits early in your career that allow you to continue building that voice! Occasionally, I see this speech pattern in others and it has little to do with gender identity. Examining it as such is using it as a crutch, I think. Having an opinion and being able to state it so it’s heard is like singing. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or beautiful it is if no one can hear it. Having a voice is about having strength but also balancing that strength so that there’s still melody and you don’t sound like you’re yelling. So here are some thoughts on building that trait.

Don’t Apologize for Your Weakness

“I’m sorry” has one place in your interactions with your peers and that’s in expressing sincere remorse.

Times it is okay to say “I’m sorry” as a software developer:

  • You force pushed commits to master.
  • It’s been 2 days and you forgot to review someone’s code.
  • You insulted someone. Or their family. Or their beliefs. Or something deeply personal.
  • You have severely inconvenienced someone (in a way that is obvious to you)
  • You overcommitted yourself and failed to hold to your commitments in a way that caused problems for someone else’s workflow.

Here’s times you shouldn’t apologize:

  • You don’t know something
  • You don’t feel confident about your opinions.
  • You have an opinion that conflicts with someone else’s opinion.

Also, don’t confuse apologies with gratitude. Suppose someone took time out of their day to explain how something works to you. Don’t say, “I’m sorry for eating up your time.” Say, “Thank you for taking the time to explain this to me. It’s going to be useful when [whatever it’s going to be useful for in the future]!”

Remember, when you apologize unnecessarily, you are diluting the meaning of sincere apologies and you are only adding filler and fluff to a meaningful conversation.

Find Your Strengths

Your soft skills as a developer are just as valuable as your hard skills. These are skills you’ve been working on since you were a child. They are part of your personality. Just like you walked into your 2nd grade classroom not knowing the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks, you’ll walk into your first job as a software developer with not a lot of knowledge to show off that you’ll soon learn. People’s willingness to engage with you when you know nothing will be built entirely on the kind of personality you have.

Don’t Acknowledge Your Weaknesses to Deflect Your Strengths

Things you might be tempted to say:

  • “You probably know more about this than me”
  • “I’m not an expert”
  • “I’m probably wrong but…”
  • “Just a thought.”
  • “This is just my opinion but…”
  • “I don’t know if this will make sense but…”

These are implicitly understood things. You might say them because you’re afraid if you are wrong, that you’ll look dumb. But they’re not necessary. Regardless of whether you’re an actual expert or not, the person you’re speaking with now has your opinion to decide whether they agree with it or not. And they know it’s your opinion. Or your thought. And really, it doesn’t matter who knows more about what. Because sometimes someone who has expert knowledge of something has a moment of stupidity just like someone who might know very little about the intricacies of a system might have a genius observation.

You Can Express Your Uncertainty Without Putting Yourself (or Others) Down

Here are some great ways to make it clear to your colleagues that you have an opinion, think it might have some worth, but need some additional feedback or assistance:

  • “I’d be interested to hear your thoughts too on this!”
  • “Let’s chat about how we can actually implement this idea I have.”
  • “Can you be a rubber duck and listen to some ideas I have?”
  • “I know you know a lot about this thing I’m working on so I’d really appreciate your feedback!”
  • “I like your ideas but I have some thoughts too that I think would work well here.”

The list of possible ways to express this goes on and can be amended to whatever context is necessary. The idea here is that if you want to establish your voice, stand by your opinions and show others that you are grateful for their opinions too.

You Can “Haha” and Emoji and Cat GIF it Up All You Want

I don’t know why people think these things take away credibility. The people I work with that I like the most know when it’s appropriate to laugh, know that not everything is a personal attack, and have fun doing what they do. The best way to reflect your credibility is by showing others that you like your career and that you feel in your own skin doing it. Don’t stop laughing. Because laughter is part of your voice too just as much as your words are.