The issue of women speaking up — or rather, not speaking up — is one that I address periodically. This is because I see frequent examples of women not rocking the boat, biting their tongues, and being overly conciliatory.
Clearly, both sexes avoid conflict in particular situations. However, it remains my experience that we of the fairer sex keep mum more often than we should, and that behavior is socially reinforced and rewarded.
Fear of Speaking Up
Recently it came to my attention that a longtime friend hadn’t been forthcoming about a critical issue in her life. Why had she kept quiet? Was it a matter of discretion? Was she afraid of being judged? Was it something more deep-rooted, possibly ingrained since childhood? Or could it be the carefully constructed female mask?
Had I known what was going on in her life, I might have been able to help. At the very least, I might have been able to encourage her to help herself, and by that I mean — to speak her mind, to stand up, to act on her own behalf.
For too many of us, a similar dynamic plays out not only in our personal lives, but professionally as well.
Speaking Your Mind vs Talk, Talk, Talk
My old friend is a vivacious woman. She is skilled in the art of conversation, though she tends to lay back in a group. When it comes to voicing an opinion among others, she holds her tongue. She shares those same opinions — carefully — only when conversing with one other person.
I think of this as the “talking tightrope” that so many women navigate, particularly in organizational life. My friend’s first career was in healthcare, where men ruled the roost, and her second career was a blend of healthcare and the corporate world, where again, the leadership was primarily male.
Speaking her mind in those environments, if it meant ruffling feathers?
Not a chance.
Are Women “Allowed” to Be Wrong?
After my own 20 years in the traditional business world as well as since, working as a consultant and freelancer, I’ve dealt with a variety of clients. They cross industry sectors, many have been global, and I’m generally side by side with the men who are in charge.
Occasionally, there is a woman in a managerial role.
Now, we know that some individuals are naturally more reticent. They are less likely to offer an opinion in a group setting, especially if an idea or recommendation might garner opposition or conflict. But that may not be the only source of hesitation. They may sense risk to their reputations by potentially being perceived as wrong.
When you are among the minority in any setting, what you say and how you say it is certainly more in the spotlight than if you blend into the crowd. And in my experience, the fear of being perceived as wrong (or not “good enough”) dogs many women and keeps them from speaking up.
Bad Habits Hurt Smart Women
As for my friend, whatever personality traits encourage her to sparkle socially but stay out of the spotlight professionally, I know her hesitation to speak up was reinforced by her upbringing as well as working in male-dominated environments.
Also characteristic of this female reticence: She never interrupts, she never insists, she does not speak over others. And at times, organizational life requires that we do all three.
Clearly, what we say and how we say it can do much to advance or retard our progress — socially, academically, and professionally. However, the additional burden of policing every idea, opinion, recommendation or conclusion slows us down and diminishes the contribution we could otherwise make.
In organizational life, I have always paid attention to what I say and when, and I recognize there is much I keep to myself. I am accustomed to avoid offending or being “wrong.”
Apparently, I am typical.
The New York Times offers this column by Sheryl Sandburg and Adam Grant, “Speaking While Female,” which explains what often occurs 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.
As for my own diplomatic way of approaching topics in group settings, I feel my way — communicating directly at times, and tiptoeing through in others.
On a related note, we read about the necessity of “failing” in order to succeed. But in my experience, we are more scrutinized and held to a higher standard; whereas failing is perceived as risk-taking for men, it is perceived as failing for women. And don’t you think that weighs heavily in whether or not we speak our minds?
Confidence Is Key, But…
We may point to self-confidence as a key factor in a woman’s organizational success. Yet speaking up isn’t necessarily an issue of confidence, but rather, reading the (male) audience and group dynamic, then navigating a narrow path between ‘not too much’ and ‘just enough.’ In those words, I revisit my years of walking the corporate talking tightrope, and I see the care I exercise when working with a predominantly male client company.
I have also witnessed 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 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. And I wonder if the next generation — more aware of these issues — will make significant progress.
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