Damned if they do, damned if they don't: The cost of women speaking up - Women's Agenda

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t: The cost of women speaking up

Sheryl Sandberg’s unlikely sideline as the new millennium’s great hope for women shows no signs of slowing down. The Facebook COO’s seminal book on women and work, Lean In, topped American best-seller lists in 2014, prompting discussion (often heated and sometimes considered) about why so few women make it to the “C” (or “Chief”) suite.

Sandberg’s thesis, that women need to be bolder and can support each other by organizing in groups, prompted accusations of dilettantism (by Susan Faludi, for example, whose systemic rebuttal of Sandberg’s thesis is a cold and entertaining read). But it also restarted the stalled mainstream debate on gender and work, and brought the findings of a generation of first-rate research on gender to a wide audience.

Key findings? First: Gender is a Thing. It’s real, even if you can’t see it. Second: We all love bias, but we’re going to have to give it up if we want the higher prize of equity at work and at home.

Sandberg’s upbeat approach is evident in her online platform (LeanIn.org) to promote women’s groups, or circles, at work – and her latest salvo, an article (Speaking While Female – co-authored with Adam Grant) published in the New York Times on 11 January 2014, picks the debate up again in typically readable fashion. This time, she reports that women who speak up in meetings often pay for it later in performance assessments.

Sandberg and Grant cite the work of Yale psychologist Victoria L Brescoll, who found that male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence – while female executives who spoke more than their peers were punished by both men and women with 14 percent lower ratings. These findings were consistent across a range of workplaces that included a healthcare company, an international bank, and the floor of the American Senate.

Women fear talking “too much” for good reason. Hence, the phenomenon of shrinking female confidence, with which any executive coach will be all too familiar. From this vantage point, a loin-girding circle of sympathetic professional peers (a Lean in circle, say) seems like a good idea.

Brescoll’s research inspires a nod of recognition from women (and people of colour) for whom the unexamined authority of white men is a Thing that’s alive in most workplaces. It’s also consistent with the findings of research carried out by Canadian executive coach, Leslie Williams, that women managers are much more likely than men to get performance feedback directed at their style (either they are too “feminine”, or too “masculine”). Sandberg notes that women are damned if they speak up – and Williams notes that they are also damned as “too feminine” if they don’t.

Sandberg and Grant report that this effect disappears in organisations with strong female representation in senior management – gender parity, it seems, brings with it permission to speak. For workplaces still grappling with a lack of women in senior management, and hence a likely bias problem that is cruelling their aspirations to promote on the basis of merit, they propose “bias interrupts”.

Bias interrupts help to turn down the emotional white noise of gender bias. Examples of bias interrupts include: a conscious policy of supporting women to speak in meetings, and introducing a “no interruption” rule to disrupt the tendency of some men to speak over women in group settings.

The ultimate bias interrupt? The determined pursuit of gender parity – that’s a Thing even Faludi can lean in to.

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