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The importance of language

Women in Engineering By Carole O'Neil, Managing Partner – 06 March 2020

A woman presenting a series of post-it notes on a white wall to four other people sitting at a table


Carole in a coral top in front of a wooden panel wall

Carole O'Neil

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I love language. I find it fascinating. So much so that I’ve developed a reputation for being a bit of a pedant (my Christmas gift from my team a few years ago included a coffee cup stating (in Shouty Capitals), “I AM SILENTLY CORRECTING YOUR GRAMMAR”.)

As one of a relatively small (but growing) number of women working at a senior level within our business, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the different ways in which men and women tend to communicate. It’s noticeable to me that the women often have to work a bit harder to get their voices heard, and that the business has been missing out on some of our collective wisdom.

I’ve been fortunate to have been working away in some of our businesses in Asia Pacific for the last 18 months or so, and I’ve learned an enormous amount (a subject for another blog, perhaps?). Most notably, I’ve developed more confidence in myself and what I bring to the party so, in my quest to maximise the value that I bring to the business, I’ve recently been testing out some different tactics for communicating more assertively.

International Women’s Day seemed like a great opportunity to share a handful of these, in the hope that they might be helpful for other women (or, indeed, anyone who struggles to make themselves heard).

Supporting others

We can and should do more to help others who are experiencing difficulties being heard. It’s easy to say something like “I think [X] had something they wanted to contribute, so let’s give them the floor”.

Stop apologising and undermining yourself / be firmer and more assertive in your use of language

I noticed a tendency in my own language to use a lot of overly apologetic phrasing. Try switching out phrases like this:

  • “I’m sorry to bring this up again”
  • “Would anyone mind if we…”
  • “I’m sorry if this is a stupid question…”

...with phrases like this:

  • “We need to talk about…”
  • “Let’s discuss…”
  • “I’d like some clarification on…”


Calmly and politely state, “that’s a great point [Fred], and I agree with you. I think that [Jane] said almost exactly that a few minutes ago”.

*the phenomenon whereby a woman makes a point in a meeting and is largely ignored, only for a man to make the same point five minutes later, and be lauded for his genius.


When cut-off mid-sentence by someone else in a meeting, allow them to finish, and then say, “thank you for that. I am just going to finish the point that I was making, and then perhaps we can respond to that one”.

If you’re feeling particularly determined, then interrupt them right back, saying something like “actually, I hadn’t quite finished, so I’ll just wrap up what I was saying”.


Say (preferably without sarcasm), “thank you for clarifying that. I agree with you, and we should…..” (or, alternatively, “I actually don’t agree with this, and this is why….”.

I’m still working on my own communication style (and suspect that I always will be), but I’m having fun with it, and hope others will too. If you want to dive further into this rabbit hole, the work of Robin Lakoff is a great place to start - you can read some of her blog posts for Huff Post here.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear top tips from others for communicating effectively at work!

A workplace culture that offers dignity and respect to all, encourages the sharing of ideas and perspectives, and values difference is of benefit to everyone. Cundall is committed to helping build a more inclusive industry, starting with our own business. Read our full Diversity and Inclusion Strategy here.