Opening Spaces to Value Women’s Voices: For Ourselves and Each Other

 Guest Contributed by Ilene C. Wasserman Ph.DWomen Speaking

“I would like to think that things have changed for women at the workplace, but just when I let my guard down, I am reminded of the vestiges of the old patterns.”

Often, while working with senior executive women, I inevitably hear about the challenges of measuring up – of adhering to the standards that seem to be differently applied to men versus women. While ostensibly, conditions and opportunities have improved for women, the frequency intensity and amount of such comments seems to be on the rise. Some of what I am hearing includes:

  • When I speak up in a meeting, it doesn’t land with the same “punch” that it does when a man says the same thing — just a few minutes later. I say to myself Didn’t I just say that? When it continues to happen, I am tempted to keep quiet.
  • But when I do say something with force, I am often viewed as “too” forceful!

For decades, my colleagues and I have listened to this pattern of gender dynamic in meetings. More recently, the research that is documenting this pattern and the impact that it has on collaboration and productivity at the workplace as well as new words that are being used to describe these behaviors is gaining attention in the popular press.

Professor Victoria Brescoll from Yale University asked professional men and women to evaluate the competence of executives based on who spoke more often. Men who spoke more often than their peers were rated 10 percent higher. However, when women spoke more than their peers, they were rated 14 percent lower. As noted by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg in a piece they wrote for the NYT January 12, 2015: Speaking While Female “women who worry that talking too much will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right”.

Tali Mendleberg, from Princeton University goes on to say that while women may be confident in their views, “they’re not confident that what they have to say is valued, and that in turn shapes how willing they are to speak, and what is discussed.”

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant are joining their voices on a regular basis to call attention to these and other issues of relationships at the workplace.

The pattern of “speaking while female” has consequences beyond the muffling of one person; rather it results in organizations and public forums missing out on a group of key contributors. It is critical that, together, we notice these patterns and be intentional about making changes such that all voices are heard.

In our book: Communicating Possibilities, we offer specific steps for noticing patterns using the acronym NOREN. NOREN stands for (1) Noticing, (2) Observing, (3) Reflecting, (4) Engaging, and (5) Noticing (Again).  In this case, how might we NOTICE when some people are speaking more than others while others are being talked over? In another blog, I wrote about micro-inclusions. A micro-inclusion is an act of stepping up and calling attention to the pattern of a man’s re-statement of a comment previously made by women is acknowledged in a way that links backs to and acknowledges the initial contribution.

OBSERVING is the active process of looking at how I, we and the organization might miss out on the contributions of some who are either talked over, interrupted, or who may be silencing themselves due to being less confident in the value of their ideas or are concerned about the consequences of asserting their voices.

REFLECTING is the ongoing process of taking what we notice, and consider what we might do, interpersonally, on teams and as a whole organization to create new patterns that are affirming and inviting.

ENGAGING differently – taking leadership to break the pattern and create openings and be an ally, by intervening interpersonally in a conversation or meeting, or structurally by initiating forms of contributing that mitigate barriers to contributing, and,

NOTICING AGAIN what we are creating together. How do we enact changes that are affirming, inviting and hopefully enable all people to see what they have to gain by enhancing the fullest contribution of women and other marginalized voices?

Change is a coordinated effort. We as women can do our part in noticing how we inhibit and silence ourselves. AND women need allies with each other as well as with our male counterparts to notice these patterns and enact new ways of listening, hearing and acknowledging each other to create new and better patterns of collaboration.

Ilene Wasserman, President of ICW Consulting Group is the author of Communicating Possibilities: A Brief Introduction to the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM). She is passionate about helping her clients see the opportunities in diversity.

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