Women walk a tightrope to be heard
Imagine you are in a meeting, mid-way through making an important point, and suddenly a colleague cuts across you, disregarding your contribution. Understandably, you get flustered, lose your train of thought and feel your chance to make your voice heard slip away.
International research suggests women frequently face this scenario in the workplace. For example, a 2014 study by George Washington University found that women were more likely than men to be interrupted. Other studies point to women being judged more harshly than their male counterparts when they do speak up.
So, on this basis, are women afraid to speak out?
“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more,” wrote Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in a 2015 article for The New York Times.
The article, co-written by Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explored the reasons why women often stay quiet at work.
For women, speaking up in the workplace or in other areas, such as politics, for example, can bring very different results than for a man with the same message. Women often find themselves judged by different measures than men.
Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence touched on this idea in a 2015 essay about the gender pay gap in Hollywood.
“All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive,” Lawrence wrote. “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likeable. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard.”
Many female leaders worry about how they come across in the boardroom, explained career coach Jane Downes.
“Growing up, we’re programmed to think that women are softer, gentler beings,” says Downes, founder of Clearview Coaching Group and author of The Career Book. “When we go into the workplace, we’re expected to keep that going – but that doesn’t get us places. Certainly, young women setting out in their career do not want to be tagged as being ‘the bitch’.”
As a career coach, Downes works with people to manage the message they’re “giving out in the office”.
“For women, it’s about gently asserting yourself from the start so that people know what you’re willing to tolerate – and what you’re not. Where it can tend to go wrong and where women get a bad name is if we over-assert ourselves out of frustration,” she says.
“Women feel more comfortable in environments where they can be heard and it is less of a boy’s club and more of a club for professionals who are there to do a job no matter what gender.”
According to Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, women are often viewed “as less of a rainmaker”, and thought of as having less “social capital”.
“And likeability, that’s often code for ‘she’s a woman’,” Bacik says.