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Report Says Women Should Speak Less to Get Ahead at Work

Marissa Meyer: Powerful Woman

Marissa Meyer: Powerful Woman via Flickr CC

Did you see the blockbuster article in the NY Times by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant discussing why women don’t speak out at work? Women who present ideas in meetings are often ignored, or are talked over by men, who run with their idea. When I told my daughter about the story she sat up straight and said “That happens to me!” She is 14, a freshman in high school.

In addition, they quote research from Dr. Victoria Briscol at Yale, which 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.”

While anecdotally I believe the talking over women story, I find the research shocking. Surely this is not happening on a conscious level. I went and read the original research paper, and there was an interesting nugget that did not make the times article: Women in positions of authority who spoke less were perceived as more powerful than women who spoke more, and men in positions of authority who spoke more were perceived as more powerful than men who spoke less. In fact, the women who spoke less has similar scores to the men who spoke more, and vice versa. They speculate that men and women may want to have different strategies for how they use their power at work. (See page 14.)

What does this mean for someone looking to find the proper Humility balance? As a reminder, Humility balance is defined as “Not more than my place, not less than my space.” When talking more is counter productive is is better to stay Silent? On the flip side, maybe remaining quiet is perpetuating an unjust social hierarchy, and it is better to trail-blaze, in the hopes that over time both men and women will become more comfortable with women asserting their power.

I don’t know the right answer, other than to reaffirm that this research shows that women are right to be concerned that speaking out can be held against them. Now that we know, we have an opportunity to check our reactions to people in power.

What do you think? Do you buy it?

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Comments

  1. I reacted to precisely the same article, Greg. And while I hadn’t expressly articulated my own recognition of the phenomenon in quite so clear a way, I have always lived it. This, alleviated to a degree by Wellesley, remarkably freeing in the all female academic environment, and certainly not by Wharton or the years in the corporate world that followed.

    What is surprising is the clarity of the data. This article is a good thing if even a few men are now more aware.

    And yes, it is conscious behavior, though not generally discussed.

    Pop by my ‘Talking Tightrope’ post. See what you think.

  2. I wonder if those perceived as more powerful are actually more successful leaders. Power does not necessarily connote teamwork skills or a willingness to take constructive input. Hierarchical style, the traditional masculine approach, may be a dying model for modern-day successful business. Nonetheless, the bias reported in the article is still bothersome.

    Based on what I’ve read about gender differences in communication styles, I suspect women are perceived as weaker when speaking up because of the way we speak, including sometimes ending sentences with a lift that gets interpreted as a question or adding an actual question word like “yes?” or “right?” at the end of a statement. While this approach can build consensus, it also can suggest the woman doesn’t know her subject and wants her position affirmed. Happily I rarely encounter these power play situations since I left the corporate/engineering world but if I do find myself feeling overpowered by a man in a conversation, I modify my communication style as needed to get my point heard.

    We can’t change others’ perception but we can shift our awareness of how our particular style might be perceived. In this regard, I highly recommend the books by Deborah Tannen about gender communication differences.