How do Women get their Voices Heard?

shutterstock 4It’s an age-old argument amongst women – how do we get our voices heard? Why is it that a man can say exactly the words that have just left a woman’s mouth and immediately a disregarded idea is taken seriously and forms the centre of a lively debate?  And then there’s the interrupting! Think back to the scene at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 when Kanye West leapt onto the stage and plucked the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hand.  It was a highly public example of a man interrupting a woman while she was trying to speak, and it happens so often that it’s now been given the tag-line manterruption by those who are conscious of the phenomenon.

The Kanye example is extreme but women will describe similar situations in boardrooms and in meetings around the world. As Soraya Chemaly wrote in her article 10 words every girl should learn: “A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion. Jessica Bennett states in her article How not to be Manterrupted in Meetings: “We speak up in a meeting, only to hear a man’s voice chime in louder.  We pitch an idea, perhaps too uncertainly – only to have a dude repeat it with authority. We may possess the skill, but he has the right vocal chords – which means we shut up, losing our confidence (or worse, the credit for the work).”

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a Wharton Business School professor, wrote recently in the New York Times about what they describe as the perils of “speaking while female”.  Some of their findings have been tabled as follows:  male senators speak significantly more than their junior colleagues, while female senators do not; male executives who speak more often than their peers are deemed more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less (14% less); and that in the workplace women speak less and are interrupted more.  “We’ve both seen it happen again and again,” Sandberg and Grant write. “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.”

A good example can be drawn from scientist Ben Barres who started life as Barbara Barres before undergoing transgender surgery.  In Ms Chemaly’s article she describes how Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and, later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” Several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech and he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.” Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Ms.Chemaly’s article also highlights the following:  “ …male doctorsinvariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more . This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if the employees are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.”  In fact, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached.

Why do women’s voices need to be heard?

For a start, it is worth repeating that women make up 80% of worldwide consumer spending, so listening to the voices of the overwhelming majority of a company’s customers is an idea worth considering.  In addition, women comprise the majority of qualified talent worldwide and the divide between them and the male pool of talent is growing.  This means that women will be wooed more and more by companies in the future, and these businesses had better be providing an environment where their point of view is heard and respected.  Not to mention the fact that having women in senior positions in business has been shown to improve every aspect of corporate governance.  Also, having only one woman on a board of directors compared to those companies with all male-boards results in  a large increase in profitability according to a wealth of studies looking at every aspect of sales and return on investment .

Barbara Annis, in her book written with John Gray, Work with Me: The 8 Blind-spots consultingbetween Men and Women in Business states the following: “It’s undeniable that women bring a different perspective and a different value to the workplace. If men understood that another perspective is always the best way to find the best plan of action, and if they would realize that more viewpoints always bring greater success, they would more likely embrace those differences.”

And, finally, business these days works increasingly in multi-cultural, multi-national teams across the globe.  As quoted in a recent New York Times article: Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others: “though we may still idolize the charismatic leader or creative genius, almost every decision of consequence is made by a group”. In the same article, it was found that group IQ has little to do with the intelligence of the team.  What makes a difference is adding women to the team.  “Teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women.”

With all this overwhelming evidence, can there be any doubt that women hold the key to future wealth, prosperity and good governance?  How crucial it then becomes that their voices are heard and heeded.

How then to solve the problem?

The crux of the matter is that men and women have completely different modes of communication.  Presently, the method used almost exclusively in business is the masculine style.  Barbara Annis’s book provides results of wide research into the differing styles between the genders.  While 98% of both men and women consider communication to be very important, 82% of men feel they are communicating well enough to women and believe they are being understood; while only 52% of women feel fully heard by men.

Owing to this obvious divide, and the frustration women feel at manterrupting, much has been written about trying to get women’s ideas heard and respected.  The solutions have been many and varied.  Before discussing their merit, here are a few of them:

  • The ‘no Kanye rule’ – tell men to stop interrupting
  • say: “I just said that”
  • help men to see that their unconscious bias is precluding them from listening to women with their full attention
  • get a male colleague to support your idea when you raise it in a meeting
  • speak with more confidence and avoid a voice inflection of uncertainty at the end of a sentence
  • encourage men to give credit where it’s due as it will make them look good in the long run
  • learn the art of interruption yourself
  • practice a deeper tone of voice for more authority – leadership and authority are associated with masculine tones
  • And my all time favourite – speak louder!

westonaria 18While all of these recommendations might have some merit in different situations, I don’t think any go nearly far enough, because they simply continue to deal with the status quo.  Any gender balancing expert will tell you that, in order for the maximum benefits to be achieved by bringing more women into decision-making positions, the whole culture of a company has to change.

At present, if you google ‘being heard in a meeting’, what comes across is almost a manual for entering a battleground.  Endless articles describe how this is a crucial time to showcase your talents – how you need to be fully prepared to catch the eye of a senior manager, so it’s essential that your ideas are heard and recognition given to your suggestions.  In fact, the advice given is a litany of partisanship, secret diplomacy, unilateral action and lobbying, which is very much the way that modern affairs are characterized.  It’s certainly reminiscent of how many parliaments and congresses operate, riddled with contentious and competitive behaviour, which is a poor way to conduct governance.  What’s also obvious is that the foundation of this manner of debating and negotiating is a masculine construct, and how very badly it needs the balance of the feminine.

So, in the 21st Century, the very premise of ‘the meeting’ needs a long overdue overhaul.  Ideally, shouldn’t a business meeting be a search for solutions by putting a variety of minds together, by getting everyone’s opinions on the table and uncovering a resolution that is best for the clients, the environment and the company? Surely we should be fostering a milieu that encourages participation and kindles creative thinking? It’s clear that the opposite situation is true at the moment.  Many people are terrified in meetings – scared to voice an opinion for fear that their idea may be shouted down – while others are preparing for an Oscar winning performance, garnering support for their ideas in advance and ready to do battle with all challengers.  The fact that many companies still refer to meeting rooms as ‘war rooms’ gives an indication of the out-dated way in which many meetings are conducted.

There is a solution and it involves changing the nature of meetings to one of true consultation as opposed to one of competition and vying for attention. Consultation in its truest form means that egos get checked at the door. The intention of the meeting should be to find the best solution and path of action, not to make or break an individual’s career.  Real consultation requires a well-trained and capable facilitator who will ensure that all voices are heard, and who controls those who might dominate the conversation unnecessarily.  It also means that every idea put forward becomes a group idea – to be elaborated on and expanded on or put aside.  Of course, it is crucial that no individual leaves the meeting bragging that his/her idea was adopted.  Likewise, once the group has reached a decision, even if consensus was not obtained and a vote was taken, nay-sayers shouldn’t leave the room passing on the opinion to all and sundry that they weren’t in favour of the final outcome.  Consultation is group-think in its highest form, and every decision needs to be owned by the group.

There are many other factors, of course.  Meetings are complex and decision-making is a Boardroom 14highly developed skill.  The right mix of people needs to be in the room so that a diversity of opinions is heard and the group must delay a decision until it feels that it is properly informed on all aspects of the matter. The facilitator needs to be able to draw out ideas from the quieter members – it is estimated that one third of people are introverts, and yet they may have the very ideas that most need to be contributed.  Also, all employees need to be trained in consultation skills.  It’s not an easy skill to learn because it truly requires a subjugation of ego and self-promotion, and a complete immersion in what is best for the team.  And the facilitator needs to lead the group away from being dazzled by those who are overly confident to listen to those who may have the quieter voices but could well be more competent.

Mastering true consultation is challenging, but everyone can learn it.  I’ve watched it work over several years in many, many situations around the world, and the decision-making improves as the consulting expertise matures. Participants learn to use wisdom and improve their eloquence, so that ideas are concise and pertinent.  Moral courage is still required as ideas need to be expressed but, when a facilitator will not allow ridicule or rancor, it’s amazing how many excellent ideas are expressed by people who would normally fear to speak.  And this largely relates to those 52% of women who feel that they aren’t heard or are over-ridden by louder, more forceful voices.  How wonderful it would be if current communication and decision-making methods could become more constructive and collaborative rather than self-serving and antagonistic.  A great benefit would be that women would finally be heard – and how desperately we need the input of those voices.


About Anne G

My company, SkillsSource, is committed to the process of gender balancing and to the change management needed in public and private enterprise to improve the representation of women at all levels of decision-making. We believe that humanity is like a bird with two wings: the masculine and feminine. Only when both wings are balanced and strong can the bird fly.
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