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