The most diverse tech pipeline in the world won’t ultimately make a difference if the women who make it into tech are held back by organizational cultures that, consciously or not, incentivize their silence. While it may be true that women have the tendency to want and expect their work to speak for itself, the truth is that being vocal at work has always been a minefield for women.
The most diverse tech pipeline in the world won’t ultimately make a difference if the women who make it into tech are held back by organizational cultures that, consciously or not, incentivize their silence. While it may be true that women have the tendency to want and expect their work to speak for itself, the truth is that being vocal at work has always been a minefield for women. And data from the last two years shows that the move to online and “hybrid” work has only made things worse. As we contemplate a permanent shift to the hybrid workplace, it’s more urgent than ever that leaders commit to removing the barriers that get in the way of women sharing their voices and ideas.
Here are five simple things every executive can do to support the women on their teams finding their own voice:
- Choose female spokespeople. When teams give you a readout, make sure that the spokesperson for the team rotates so that the women on the team are given as much opportunity to present as their male counterparts.Barrier you’re breaking down: Research by Victoria Brescoll at Yale shows that “when male executives spoke more often, they were perceived to be more competent, but when female executives spoke more often, they were given lower competence ratings.” And these were executives! No wonder so many women are extremely reluctant to self-promote. Plus, women’s ideas are often attributed to men. For these reasons and a slew of others, your female employees may be understandably hesitant to volunteer as the spokesperson for a team project. To make matters worse, women often conflate being deferential with being a good “team player,” and may therefore lose out on critical opportunities for exposure to senior leadership, which can ultimately affect their chances for advancement.
- Get curious about perceived confidence. When a woman in the workplace “seems” like she lacks confidence, get curious, rather than deciding she doesn’t have leadership potential. Take the time to find out if she really lacks faith in her ideas and abilities or is just consciously or subconsciously trying to avoid the many pitfalls that vocal women can experience.
Barrier you’re breaking down: Women may not sound confident, even when they are. As linguist Deborah Tannen explains in Harvard Business Review, “From childhood, most girls learn that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular.” She goes on to say, “Ways of speaking learned in childhood affect judgments of competence and confidence, as well as who gets heard (and) who gets credit.” This is only exacerbated by the fact that women who speak up more are deemed as less competent — it’s enough to make even a woman very confident in her abilities not only speak up less often, but also project less confidence when she speaks.
- Facilitate inclusive meetings. Learn how to run more inclusive meetings, both in-person and online. For example, you might signal that you’d like to hear from everyone or have an explicit agreement among team members not to let anyone dominate the conversation. For virtual meetings, consider using tools like chat and post-meeting feedback forms to invite asynchronous contributions from those who may not feel comfortable taking the proverbial mic.Barrier you’re breaking down: Women struggle to be heard in meetings — they are interrupted more often than men (especially women with disabilities), and men often get credit for their ideas — leaving many women wary about speaking up in the first place. Video calls don’t make things any easier. In a study by Catalyst, 45 percent of women business leaders reported that it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, and one in five women said they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.
- Amplify and attribute women’s ideas. Look for opportunities to amplify and correctly attribute women’s ideas, in meetings and beyond, and guide the other leaders in your organization to do the same.
Barrier you’re breaking down: Men are more likely than women to get credit for their ideas, and to be given credit for the work of a team of which they’re a part. What’s more, research shows that “statements said by a Black woman in a group discussion were least likely to be correctly attributed compared to Black men and White women and White men.”
- Make sure there are multiple women in the room. This, of course, requires that you have enough women on staff that having more than one woman in every meeting is easy to achieve.Barrier you’re breaking down: As the 2021 Women in the Workplace report explains, “Women who are ‘Onlys’—often one of the only people of their race or gender in the room at work—have especially difficult day-to-day experiences. Onlys stand out, and because of that, they tend to be more heavily scrutinized. Their successes and failures are often put under a microscope, and they are more likely to encounter comments and behavior that leave them feeling othered, excluded, and reduced to negative stereotypes.” For example, an “only” woman is more likely to be interrupted. And all of this is heightened for women of color, who are often an “only” in two ways.
Actively changing our company cultures so that it’s easier and safer for women to speak up is the right thing to do for the sake of not only diversity and inclusion, but also productivity and profitability. Will it take a little effort and a new mindset? Of course. But ignoring the problem means ignoring the most valuable asset you have as a leader: your people.