Where do men get the credit (and women don't!)
Are you really successful at getting your ideas heard and accepted at work? If yes, hooray, if ‘not really’, read on. Honestly, it’s not your fault! You know I have a ‘strong interest’ (some might say obsession but not me…) in understanding gender behavioural differences at work, and how they often disadvantage women. And not just understanding but also giving women the information and tools to overcome this, as far as is possible. I wrote a post a while ago noting that in academic seminars, if women didn’t speak first they asked much fewer questions than the men did. You can read it here Women, How to Make Your Voice Heard. It’s absolutely fascinating (and frustrating) this issue of how women make their voices heard, or not; we’re all battling centuries of social conditioning about how we hear women’s voices, men and women. We women need to be heard but what can we do? Well, here’s a couple of suggestions… read on.
Let me share with you some new research on communication between the genders which featured recently in The Harvard Business Review. Research suggests that those who speak up the most at work tend to emerge as leaders. Sean R. Martin, Elizabeth McClean, Kyle Emich, and Todd Woodruff explored the following two questions – does it matter who speaks up, or how they do it? Here’s a brief summary of their findings:
We found that those who speak up can gain the respect and esteem of their peers, and that increase in status made people more likely to emerge as leaders of their groups — but these effects happened only for some people and only when they spoke up in certain ways. Specifically, speaking up with promotive voice (providing ideas for improving the group) was significantly related to gaining status among one’s peers and emerging as a leader. However, speaking up with prohibitive voice (pointing out problems or issues that may be harming the team and should be stopped) was not. We further found that the gender of the person speaking up was an important consideration: The status bump and leader emergence that resulted from speaking up with ideas only happened for men, [my highlighting] not for women.
Across both *studies—using both field and experimental research designs and very different populations of respondents—we saw the same pattern of results: Men who spoke up with ideas were seen as having higher status and were more likely to emerge as leaders. Women did not receive any benefits in status or leader emergence from speaking up, regardless of whether they did so promotively or prohibitively. Neither men nor women who spoke up about problems suffered a loss of status or had a lower likelihood of emerging as a leader (though they weren’t helped by speaking up, either). Also of note, men and women both ascribed more status and leadership emergence to men who spoke up promotively, compared with women who did so. Our work suggests that the social outcomes for those who speak up depend on how they choose to speak up and on their gender. This pattern of results across our studies highlights that we still have a way to go until men’s and women’s contributions to groups are evaluated in more objective terms.
This is not surprising, although it is disheartening. Women are not heard or given respect on the same terms as men. No wonder so many studies cite women as lacking in confidence when it comes to applying for promotion etc. It’s not the only reason but it is an important reason. Unconscious bias is at play.
What Can Women Do To Be Heard?
So, what can we do? Well, knowledge is always powerful. Once we understand what is happening we can take steps to overcome it. Clearly it’s no good simply aping male behaviour, even if we wanted to, as a natural bias against women’s talk exists. (I have spoken with some transgender folk on this topic and their take is fascinating about how differently their contributions are received once they changed their outward gender.) First, I think, we have to recognise the inherent bias in ourselves. The mere fact of being women does not insulate us from the effects of living in a society where authority in women’s voices is not acknowledged. (Read this fascinating experiment.) We have to own our own prejudices and challenge ourselves every time we hear a woman speak.
Second, I have always found sharing this sort of research in meetings to be helpful if I can resist the impulse to do it in an ‘I told you so‘ kind of way. Maybe an article in a house magazine? Sharing it with HR and your Learning & Development teams? Get it into the public domain under a ‘this is how we can get the best performing teams and be ahead of the field’ banner.
Thirdly, you can attend one of my upcoming seminars in Bristol, (what a good idea!) or ask me in to talk to a group at your place of work and get the debate started. Check it out on www.changingpeople.co.uk