een But Not Heard

    Sheryl Sandberg reopens discussion about suppressing women’s voices at work

By Dana Wilkie March 3, 2015

The question of how to coach women whose voices are suppressed at work is not new—but the resurgence of interest in the topic may be.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in a January 2015 op-ed she co-wrote for the New York Times, reignited discussion about the tightrope women walk when they try to speak up at work—during meetings, to a boss or maybe just at a happy hour with colleagues.

In the Times piece, Sandberg wrote that when a woman speaks in a professional setting, “either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

There’s plenty of research to support the argument that, even in this seemingly inclusive age, women, more than men, get mixed signals at work when they assert their ideas or opinions. If they are less than direct, solicit feedback from others or speak in a “feminine” manner—using a relatively high-pitched tone and ending declarations as if they were questions—their observations tend to be dismissed. But if they communicate in a traditionally “male” style, by being straightforward, authoritative and speaking commandingly, they risk alienating those who embrace a conventional view of how women “should” communicate, and can be seen as strident, pushy or bossy.

“Perhaps women speak up less about issues related to their own tasks, but are more likely to speak up on behalf of their colleagues,” wrote the authors of a 2010 Harvard Business Review article. “One other possibility is that women hold back just as often as men, but receive less credit for the ideas they actually propose. Thus, their assertiveness is not acknowledged and recognized as their colleagues share the success of their ideas.”

A February 2012 online article in the Administrative Science Quarterly argued that male U.S. senators with more tenure and leadership positions, having greater track records of legislation passed, spoke more on the U.S. Senate floor than their junior colleagues. But for female senators, the same accomplishments weren’t linked to significantly more speaking time.

The same research found that male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.

Sandberg’s co-author on the New York Times piece, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found similar patterns when studying a health care company and advising an international bank. When men suggested ideas that produced revenue, they got significantly higher performance evaluations. When women did the same, this didn’t improve their managers’ perception of their performance.

What They Say, and How They Say It

Rob Bogosian,founder of RVB Associates, a consultancy that links management to business strategy,noted that many women tend to end sentences on an upbeat, as if they were asking a question rather than making a declaration. “It connotes tentativeness,” he said. “We suspect that’s why women at times have a hard time being heard.”

And it’s not just tonal quality that can hinder women. Often, it’s the phrases they use.

“Women tend to overexplain, to be less direct, to use words that aren’t firm,” said Christine Casper, president at CM&M Inc., which works with organizations on communication and leadership excellence. “They care so much about relationships that they use feeling-based language. I may ask, ‘How do you feel about what I just said?’ while men in general don’t care for any of that. They say, ‘Tell me what this means. I’m trying to create results.’ ”

Stereotypes about how women should communicate are shaped “in our formative years by messages we get from parents, media and the interaction of our caregivers,” Bogosian said. “We carry that belief system forward. Now we’re in a work setting, and we have preconceived notions about acceptable male and female behavior, and when we see behavior that we can’t map back to those belief systems, we form judgments about whether it’s acceptable.”

What to Do?

Some, like Casper, believe that women benefit by communicating more like men: “Be brief, direct, very clear and do not overexplain,” she advised. “Carry yourself with confidence, dress appropriately, sit up straight, make direct eye contact, observe what you’re doing with your hands.”

Others, however, believe the workplace is enhanced by a woman’s tendency to speak in a collaborative style, and that the antidote to squelching their voices is not for them to speak like men, but for the workplace to recognize that a less assertive speaking style has its own benefits.

One solution is to increase the number of women in leadership roles. This way, people become more accustomed to women’s contributions and leadership, no matter whattheir communicationstyles. “With men occupying most executive positions, this would make it most difficult for women to speak up to the most senior managers,” observed the writers of the article in the Harvard Business Review.

Some employers have innovation tournaments during which workers submit suggestions and solutions to problems anonymously. The ideas are evaluated and the best plans are implemented, before anyone knows if the idea came from a man or woman.

Others invoke a “no-interruption” rule when employees are brainstorming or pitching. If someone does interrupt, “call it out,” Bogosian said.

Also, “It’s your responsibility to say, ‘You know, that sounds like what Joan offered 20 minutes ago, can we go back to Joan’s idea?’ That sends a message to the group, ‘Oh, we need to think about why we didn’t hear Joan in the first place,’ ” Bogosian added.

Managers can mentor the women they supervise, advising them on the benefits of asking for what they need to do their jobs effectively, to reach professional goals, and to negotiate for promotions, pay and work flexibility.

Finally, employers must create a workplace in which men and women are rewarded equally, such as ensuring that men and women receive comparable raises for comparable achievements.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Join us for the largest and best HR conference in the world, June 23-26, 2019 in Las Vegas.

Join us for the largest and best HR conference in the world, June 23-26, 2019 in Las Vegas.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect