top of page

Silent No More: The High Price of "Hedging" in Professional Communication

Ever felt like you're walking on eggshells while speaking up at work, especially as a woman?

Dive into the hidden price we pay for 'hedging' our words and discover a path forward. Let's speak with power, not caution!

In a society that prides itself on progress and innovation, it's a stark revelation to see age-old biases reigning supreme, especially when it targets women.

Ladies, this is for you. Are you wrapping your words in layers of caution, sacrificing clarity for perceived politeness?

The cost? Progress, productivity, and, more importantly, human potential.

A concerning trend emerged during my "Presentation Skills for Tech Leaders" workshops. Numerous participants, particularly women, voiced their frustrations, sharing that they felt compelled to 'hedge' their responses to questions and dilute their arguments.

This sentiment echoes a recent article in The New York Times. Women, irrespective of expertise, temper their words in professional settings, often to navigate a field riddled with bias.

"Hedging," or what many call "weak language," looks like this: two equally qualified professionals debating the merits of a new project:

One says, "I believe this approach could be beneficial," while the other asserts, "This is the approach we need." Who seems more confident?

And why does the first speaker feel the need to temper her statement?

Women often rephrase an assertive "This solution will work" to a more hedging "I think this solution might work." Or "Our findings are conclusive" becomes "Our findings seem to suggest a conclusion."

The root isn't always a lack of confidence; it's navigating a landscape where others could mistake directness for aggression or arrogance.

These nuances have profound implications; here are three examples:

  1. Professional Challenges: The corporate arena, rife with competition, often sees women constantly justifying their expertise. They find themselves providing double the evidence for their conclusions or, in many scenarios, softening their stances not to appear "bossy." And it's not just about appearances. This drains mental energy, stifles innovation, and puts undue pressure on them to 'fit in.'

  2. Navigating Gender Dynamics: Men, irrespective of their intentions, often unknowingly perpetuate this cycle. Directness from women is seen as aggressive. Add to that the age dynamics, where younger women find it even more challenging to communicate directly with older male colleagues. It's a tightrope walk – balancing the need to assert oneself while being wary of crossing unseen boundaries.

  3. Political Implications: Politics, where leadership should ideally be unbiased, is perhaps one of the most revealing stages for these dynamics. Competent female politicians find themselves in a paradoxical trap. Be assertive, and you're "unlikeable." Be collaborative, and you're "weak." It's not about the message; it's about the messenger.

In my workshops, we explored assertive language and confidence. Still, "hedging" persisted. Though it might reflect emotional intelligence and adaptability, the question remains: why must women resort to it?

According to some people in the article, change is afoot. Generational and cultural shifts offer a glimmer of hope. Younger generations, more attuned to equality and diversity, are gradually normalizing strong, direct female voices. Cultures are evolving, realizing the power of diverse perspectives. But it's a slow transition.

More needs to be done, particularly towards the usual issues like:

  • Awareness – Speaking up: Learning to recognize and confront biases head-on. Bringing more attention and focus on inclusive and empathetic communication are not just essential; they're overdue.

  • Feedback Mechanisms: Empathy demands listening. Establish safe channels where people can share their experiences and suggest improvements.

  • Promote Diverse Voices: We continue to need conversations that celebrate diverse voices. Where a woman's statement isn't termed 'aggressive,' and a man's uncertainty isn't termed 'weak.'

Here's the thing: empathy is our way forward. Recognizing and valuing diverse voices paves the path to real progress.

And intellectual honesty? That shouldn’t come at the expense of assertiveness.

It's high time we rewrite this narrative. And for that, I'd love to hear from you. Share your experiences, and voice your views. Let's ensure our next generations never have to 'hedge' their worth.

PS: I’m the papa of a wonderful daughter getting ready to engage in the corporate world. I’ve seen her worth; it would kill me to know she needs to ‘hedge” her language.


HERE is a comprehensive summary of the insights from the NYT article.

The summarized version of the article "Women Know Exactly What They’re Doing When They Use ‘Weak Language’" from the New York Times:

  • Many women have been advised to avoid using "weak language" if they want to be taken seriously in professional settings.

  • Contrary to this notion, the article argues that "weak language", such as disclaimers ("I might be wrong, but…"), hedges ("maybe, sort of"), and tag questions ("don’t you think?"), can be strategically beneficial.

  • Studies have shown that women who use tentative language when negotiating for raises are more likely to receive them, because this approach reinforces the supervisor’s authority and avoids appearing arrogant.

  • Research across 29 studies revealed that women tend to use more tentative language than men. This is not due to a lack of assertiveness but rather a way to show sensitivity towards others' perspectives.

  • Gender stereotypes penalize women for being overtly assertive, making them appear less likable and hirable. In contrast, women who demonstrate qualities such as intelligence and determination without appearing forceful are seen as more suitable for leadership roles.

  • Men typically do not face the same repercussions for being assertive, and can even be celebrated for it. A woman's assertiveness, however, may be perceived as aggression simply based on gender.

  • An experiment by Linda Carli revealed that when men and women deliver the same speech with either an assertive or tentative tone, men are more convinced by women who speak tentatively. Men find such women more likable and trustworthy.

  • While it's unfortunate that women sometimes feel the need to adjust their language to avoid negative repercussions, the article emphasizes that instead of pushing women to be more assertive, society should challenge existing stereotypes.

  • The author suggests structural changes in workplaces such as focusing on substance over style in performance reviews, and considering all qualified individuals for promotions without making them explicitly ask for it. This could help reduce the gender gap in leadership roles.


On Professional Challenges: Many women in technical and STEM fields feel the need to use "weak" or "hedging" language to ensure they don't come off as aggressive, especially when communicating with men. Despite being well-qualified, they have to provide excessive evidence for their claims, and their expertise does not diminish the need to use such language over time.

On Navigating Gender Dynamics: Both in small companies and academic institutions, women feel the pressure to hedge their language to avoid appearing bossy or authoritative. Even with gender-aware colleagues, women find themselves constantly negotiating gendered expectations which can be mentally and emotionally draining.

On Political Implications: Female politicians face a dichotomy in language use; needing to appear authoritative for female bases, while also tempering their language to not alienate male supporters. This challenge extends to public perception, as seen in the case of Hillary Clinton, who despite being highly qualified, was criticized for her assertiveness.

On Cultural and Societal Observations: The reinforcement of "weak" language for girls starts early in life, perpetuated by parents and teachers. There are regional variations, with some areas having stricter codes for women's speech. However, there are generational shifts, with younger men in modern startups being more accustomed to strong female voices, suggesting the situation is gradually changing.

On Language and Communication: Some argue that so-called "weak" language should be termed "collaborative" language. It invites discussion and fosters an environment of mutual respect. Others contend that hedging might be a sign of intellectual honesty, emphasizing the importance of knowing and admitting the limits of one's knowledge.

On Gender Views and Solutions: The fragility of the male ego and its association with dominance is seen as a core issue. A feminist perspective could redefine ego strength, focusing on communal cohesion, shared responsibility, and cooperation. The use of hedging language is not only a technique for navigation but also can foster a sense of shared understanding.

On Training and Validation: Many women have been trained in feminist leadership programs to avoid hedging. However, their real-world experience often shows that using "weak" language can aid in smoother professional navigation and even career advancement.



You're an Alpha Leader - brilliant, driven, formidable. But what about the emotional landscape of leadership? It can sometimes strain relationships and team dynamics.

Here is where I come in.

Together, we'll shape you into an Empathic Alpha Leader, where strength meets understanding, and decisiveness pairs with empathy.

Start your journey to empathic leadership today.

bottom of page