Talking? She’s a bright and sparkling woman who loves to socialize, but she tends to lay back in a group, holding her tongue when it comes to opinions. And yet, she will generally dare to voice opinions, albeit carefully, when conversing with one and only one other person. She lives the typical “talking tightrope” that so many women navigate, especially in the context of organizational life.
As for my friend, her first career was in the healthcare field, where men made and enforced the rules, and where women were not to overstep. Her second career was a a healthcare role in the corporate world, where again – you got it – leadership was almost exclusively male.
For myself, after years in the traditional business world and since, consulting with and freelancing for clients in varied sectors, I find that I am generally working side by side with men who are in charge. That said, I deal with an occasional woman in a managerial or executive role.
Now, we know that some individuals are naturally more hesitant to offer an opinion in a group setting, especially if expressing an idea might result in opposition or conflict. But fear of opposition or conflict may not be all that is at issue; a sense of greater risk to one’s reputation (by potentially being perceived as “wrong”) is also a factor.
Whatever personality traits encourage my friend to blossom socially but stay out of the spotlight professionally, I believe her lack of speaking up in groups has been reinforced by her upbringing – and years of working for and around men.
What We Say and How We Say It
I am reminded that what we say and how we say it can do much to advance our progress in life. It’s only logical, right? And the words that come out of our mouths are critical in all realms – socially, academically, and professionally. But just as they can advance us, they can also hold us back.
And I cannot help but feel that the additional burden we face as women when we police our input and feedback ultimately slows us down, diminishing the contributions we could otherwise make.
On that point, I recall the sense of freedom I felt when I began attending an all female college, and initially, that surprised me. I found that I was completely at ease speaking my mind, perhaps for the very first time.
I’m also recalling how irksome it is to be interrupted by male colleagues, and it has happened to me often in my career. I might go so far as to say that interruptions are often the norm in conversation these days – any conversation – and the workplace is no different.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all thought not to interrupt and to accord everyone the ability to speak their mind?
“Speaking While Female”
I’m recognizing how much attention I have always paid to what I say and when, and all that I keep to myself (afraid to offend or afraid to be ‘wrong’) – and have – depending in the company I am with.
The New York Times offers a gender slant I find applicable to this frequently female dilemma. This column by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, “Speaking While Female,” explains what happens all too often when a woman speaks up in a meeting:
… 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.
I’m thinking of my own fairly diplomatic way of approaching topics when a group dynamic is at work – feeling my way along – communicating in direct fashion in some circumstances, and tiptoeing my way through in others.
On a related note, we often read about the necessity of “failing” in order to succeed. But in my experience, whereas failing is perceived as risk-taking for men, it is perceived as failing for women. We also read about the need for women to develop their self-confidence. Yet speaking up isn’t necessarily an issue of confidence, but rather reading the (male) audience and group dynamic, and navigating a narrow path of not too much – but ‘just enough.’
In those words, I recognize my own years of walking the talk tightrope. I recognize the care I exercise whenever I am working with a predominantly male client company. I also have witnessed other women turning a far more critical eye toward those of their own sex, not to mention knocking them on precisely the sort of “appearance”-based characteristics that we would never use to judge a man.
Naturally, how we are perceived is important. Still, don’t we need to risk opening our mouths?
I wonder what sort of contributions my friend could have made in her field if she hadn’t been so well trained to defer to the men around her. I wonder about other unhelpful layers of behavior that we carry and unwittingly reinforce at home and in school, which we would do better to shed. I wonder if the next generation – more aware of the issue – will make significant progress.
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