Editor's Note: This is the first article in a two-part series about women in leadership. The second article was published June 1, 2022.
The trajectory of women's success over the past century is nothing short of remarkable, but women are still relatively new players in the corporate landscape. The U.S. remains the innovation capital of the world, and the labor participation rate of its female population in positions of significance is one of the primary reasons why. But thinking about how much has changed over the past century is breathtaking.
There are more women than men in U.S. medical and law schools today. Women are running for office and getting elected in unprecedented numbers. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. businesses are started by women. And real and substantial progress, hard won by generations of pioneering women, is being recognized and celebrated on many fronts.
Yet 80 percent of CEOs are male, corporate boards are more than 80 percent male, and women only make roughly 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. Making matters worse, microaggressions in the workplace continue to challenge women's advancement.
Stacey Vanek Smith, author of Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace (Gallery Books, 2021), points out three microaggressions—interruptions, idea stealing, and disrespectful or harassing comments—that still create challenges for women in leadership. And it seems to get worse the higher that women rise in their careers. The book notes that male Supreme Court justices interrupt female justices three times more often than they interrupt their male peers.
Microaggression #1: Interruptions
"Raising awareness about how to combat this trend is an important first step for both men and women in the workplace," says Valaida Littlejohn Wise, principal consultant for diversity and inclusion at Dr. Valaida Wise Consulting LLC in Washington, D.C. "It's critical that leadership teams discuss this during staff meetings, diversity council gatherings and respect-in-the-workplace training sessions. Otherwise, we may inadvertently allow implicit or unconscious biases to seep into or fester within our workplace, potentially alienating half the workforce."
Chronic interrupters often aren't even aware of what they're doing. The impact of their actions, however, can wear thin on others' nerves and make people feel less than or put down.
Wise continues: "There may be reasons why some people chronically interrupt others. They may get excited about and ahead of a topic or they may want to prove how smart they are, but they may also be conversational narcissists, constantly turning their conversations toward themselves and generally uninterested in what others may have to say. Worse, they may be doing this to exert their authority or to 'put someone back in their place.' "
In those instances, it becomes time to stick up for yourself—and others who may be experiencing the ill effects of such workplace bullies—by interrupting the interrupter, as follows:
"I'm sorry. I haven't finished speaking yet."
"Please allow me to finish my point."
"Hold on, please. I haven't shared the most important part of what I was about to say."
This may not sound like rocket science, but it has to be practiced. Why? Because these challenges often come out of nowhere, catching the speaker off guard and off balance. Likewise, it's less about what you say and more about how you say it: The tone that you use and the forcefulness of your voice will indicate the level of professionalism (versus hostility) that comes across in your message, so mastering the art of interrupting the interrupters becomes an important skill in your leadership communication toolbox.
Microaggression #2: Idea Stealing
Vanek Smith's book also emphasizes that idea stealing can happen often between men and women. When someone attempts to hijack your idea and make it their own, train yourself to respond using phrases like:
"Yes, that sounds just like what I was saying when I suggested ... Great minds are thinking alike. The only difference between my idea and yours is ... I'm wondering how we can incorporate the best parts of both."
"It's interesting that you bring that up. That's basically what I was saying when I recommended the idea of ... I like the twist you put on it, though, in terms of ... That strengthens the original suggestion I shared earlier."
Further, women can support one another's ideas using an amplification strategy that works much the same way:
"Yes, I remember when Keisha brought that up, and I totally supported the idea then. I do even more so now in light of these other considerations ..."
Bottom line: Don't let anyone take credit for your great ideas. Be professional and respectful, but make sure everyone in the room knows that this was your solution to begin with.
Microaggression #3: Disrespectful Comments
"Change can be incredibly difficult due to inertia and insistence on the maintenance of the status quo," advises Linda Fisher Thornton, adjunct associate professor of applied ethics and global leadership at the University of Richmond and author of 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership (Leading in Context LLC, 2013). "But in light of the COVID pandemic, the workplace has never been more open to change, and it's time to 'push the river' rather than wait for evolution to do its job in terms of inclusion and equality of opportunity."
Here are some ways to end the bullying and aggressive comments that may come your way:
"I'm sorry—I missed what you just said. What was that again?"
"I'm confused. Why are you asking me that, and what exactly are you saying?"
And if you sense that a bully is really pushing the limits and there's not much to lose, pull out all the stops: "Wait. Can you repeat that again, please? I don't think everyone heard what you said, and I want to make sure it's part of the official record of this meeting."
In short, make it as hard as possible for bullies to challenge you openly. Then practice "silent confrontation" by just leaving your words out there and waiting for the respondent to make the next move. Yes, it may be awkward or uncomfortable, but that's the whole point. Make sure the schoolyard bully knows not to push you against the fence again or else he will face consequences.
Simple communication tools like speaking up for your peers, interrupting serial interrupters and getting comfortable with silence all can go a long way toward helping you define your leadership. Embrace the challenge. Model the behavior you would encourage others to emulate. And speak out with an attitude of collaboration and goodwill.
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online. He is a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, certified executive coach and author of The Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (March 2022). The first book in the five-book series is titled Workplace Ethics: Mastering Ethical Leadership and Sustaining a Moral Workplace. Other books in the series focus on the talent management life cycle, including Effective Hiring; Leadership Offense; Leadership Defense; and The New Managers (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom).