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Could Your Emails Be Hurting the Friends You’re Trying to Help?

Technology hasn’t only made it easier to stay in touch with former colleagues, old classmates and far-flung friends. It has also made asking them for favors such as referrals and introductions as effortless as hitting send.

Likewise, when you’re on the receiving end of such a request, it’s less or little hassle, in this age of email, to help a contact out.

But before you make another ask or agree to act as connector, consider this: some e-introductions can actually be harmful to women.

“We rarely think of the impact of our word choices, but they can have huge consequences,” says Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, executive director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. “Even when you’re speaking highly of a woman and saying very positive things, you could be setting the stage for her to be perceived as someone who is not leadership material.”

In fact, research shows that the language most often used to commend women is what gender scholars call “communal,” as opposed to “agentic.” As you might guess, that means women tend to be praised for their people skills and likability, while men are recognized for their visionary powers and concrete accomplishments.

“Of course, leaders need to be good collaborators and partners, too, but our culture sees game-changers, rather than team players, as natural leaders,” Mackenzie says. The solution is to raise people’s consciousness of this bias so they can block it, but in the meantime, here are Mackenzie’s tips on how to write an e-introduction that will actually help a female friend.

#1. Cut out the generic praise.

When talking in support of a woman, we’ll often say things like we love her or had a lot of fun working with her. Or we’ll say she’s great or awesome. We tend to do this because of our unconscious desire to make her likable—and so seen favorably. “But that kind of vague phrasing makes it sound like you don’t actually have anything real to commend her for,” Mackenzie explains.

#2. Instead, focus on her competence and impact.
It can feel like bragging on her behalf, and so, distasteful, but the more specific you are—e.g., Lori is an expert in translating research into actionable steps to take to become a more effective manager—the more powerful your introduction. Be sure to back up what you say with her achievements. “That way, you’re not just saying she is good at what she does,” Mackenzie says. “You’re showing that she has delivered impact to the organization in a specific and meaningful way.”

#3. Close with her collaborative skills.
Because the stereotype about women being good team players still lives, you’ll also want to make a nod to it by praising your friend for, say, bringing out the best in people or for being the kind of leader whose entire team always advances within their organization. But be strategic about it, Mackenzie advises. “Lead with the agentic and end with the communal,” she says—and you’ll have done your female contact a true solid.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie will be speaking at the sold-out 2018 TX Conference for Women.

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