Working women, have you ever attempted to present an idea in a meeting, only to be interrupted, shut down, or ignored, seemingly based on nothing more than your gender? If so, you have experienced “speaking while female,” a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant to describe women’s frequent experience of having their thoughts discredited by male co-workers and bosses. While you can’t singlehandedly undo generations of gender bias, there are certain things you can do to improve your chances of being heard.
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“We’ve both seen it happen again and again,” Sandberg and Grant write in The New York Times. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. 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.”
A long stream of research suggests that it is more difficult for a woman to have her ideas heard, understood, explored, and appreciated, than it is for a man in a professional context. Many of the strongest, most well-respected women in their companies, or even their fields, find this rings true, while men often tend to underestimate the problem. Have a conversation with some professionals today, and see what comes up about this. The issue is disturbing, and really even a bit shocking in 2015. But, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step.
Let’s look at some of the specific struggles women are up against when trying to be heard, and also consider some ideas regarding what can be done.
1. Don’t allow judgment, or fear of judgment, to silence you.
Sandberg and Grant reference an experiment done by Ethan Burris of the University of Texas. He found that when women challenged a system or suggested a new one, they were viewed as less loyal by team members who were also less likely to act on their suggestions. This is more than a little discouraging. But, not expressing ideas and informed opinions might feel even worse. Make your suggestions, explain your position, and don’t let concern over how your ideas will be perceived to silence you. The only way to fight back against a problem like this is to keep going.
2. Stand up for yourself when interrupted.
If you’re interrupted, or manterrupted, as Jessica Bennett of Time dubbed it, point it out. When you’ve started to share an idea during a meeting and find your voice is being stepped on, politely but forcefully express that you weren’t finished and quickly return to what you were saying. You have a right to be heard. If you are interrupted, interrupt back. There is no need for anger, just reclaim your right to speak and get right back to it.
Practice consistently demonstrating confidence through your body language and tone during meetings. It can be difficult to not shrink back when you’re struggling to feel heard. Resist. Sit up, put your shoulders back, and hold your head high. Speak with authority and strength. Avoid words or language that takes away from the power of your position like, “maybe” or “perhaps.” Own your ideas and express them clearly, thoroughly, and with conviction. Rolling out your contributions in the vein you’d like them to be perceived will help you get heard.
4. Talk with other women about the problems you notice.
This is a helpful practice both in an out of the workplace. Talk with trusted colleagues, friends, sisters, etc., about what you’re experiencing at work. Again, acknowledging the problem is the first step to combating it. You will feel stronger, more supported, more understood, if you have the experience of some camaraderie around this issue. It can be hard to not take the interruptions, judgments, dismissals, and slights personally. Knowing that other women are experiencing the same things will help you continue to do the hard work of making yourself heard, and you’ll also be encouraging them to do the same.
5. While you’re at it, talk to men too — and young women.
Be honest and open about the difficulties and problems you notice around this topic with men. Once their attention has been drawn to the issue, it’s easier for them to recognize the problem. Also, speak with younger women and girls in your life about how to express their ideas with confidence. This issue will be repaired through persistence and awareness. The next generation of women is likely to have their own struggles with this, so prepare them to speak with conviction and confidence. Talk with them about body language and tone, and encourage them to claim their right to be heard when working in a group. Getting into these habits early makes it easier to continue practicing them down the road. Sadly, tomorrow’s women are likely to face some of these same issues.
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