New research confirms something that many working women already knew: when women speak up, they’re less likely than men to get credit for their ideas — or to be perceived as leaders.
Researchers at the University of Delaware, University of Arizona, Boston College and the United States Military Academy conducted a pair of studies to evaluate the response to women who speak up in professional settings.
The first study, which involved West Point cadets, showed that men who spoke up more than their classmates were likely to be voted next in line for leadership. Women who did the same were voted No. 8 on average — out of a team of 10.
The second study took place in a lab and involved working men and women from across the country. The findings showed that men received more credit even when they said the exact same thing as women.
“In sum, we find that when men speak up with ideas on how to change their team for the better they gain the respect of their teammates — since speaking up indicates knowledge of the task at hand and concern for the wellbeing of the team,” says Kyle Emich, an assistant professor of management in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, at Science Daily. “Then, when it comes time to replace the team’s leader, those men are more likely to be nominated to do so. Alternatively, when women speak up with ideas on how to change the team for the better, they are not given any more respect than women who do not speak up at all, and thus are not seen as viable leadership options.”
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Women Are Not Surprised by These Findings – But Many Men Are
“Of course, when I discuss this with women they are not shocked,” Emich says. “The most common reaction I get is gratitude that we finally have data to show something they have been observing for years. However, men are mostly oblivious. This is because they do not need to consider their gender in most organizational contexts, thus their unconscious biases remain just that, unconscious.”
Emich says that when most people picture a leader, they imagine a man by default. This reinforces the opportunity gap that contributes to disparity in pay between women and men. Correcting the problem will mean dismantling that unconscious bias in both men and women, so that it’s easier to picture a woman leading the group.
How to Dismantle Unconscious Bias
Emich’s recommendation of acknowledging women’s contributions — e.g., saying “I think we all really like [name]’s idea” — echoes the “amplification” strategy employed by female staffers in the Obama administration.
“When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own,” writes Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post.
Emich also suggests mentorship, to improve support systems. But perhaps the most important thing we can do to dismantle bias is to be aware of it.
Just as we use cognitive shortcuts to get through our days, he says, “…we have patterns and shortcuts involving people too, and one of them is more easily considering men leaders even when women exhibit the exact same behaviors. And this shortcut has very real negative consequences for women and workplaces alike.”
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