Five Things Leaders Can Do to Help Women Get Their Voices Heard

I recently facilitated a leadership development workshop with a mixed-gender, mixed-race group and noticed a familiar pattern—the men, regardless of race, took up much more airtime than the women, and the women, especially the women of color, hardly said anything at all. I felt a familiar sense of annoyance rise up in me as one man after another seemed to go on and on whenever he had the floor, and I had to call on individual women and draw them out to get their voices and ideas into the room. Yes, I know that not all men have the “on and on” disease, and that some women speak a lot in groups, but this difference in gendered communication patterns has been well documented in social science research. Julia Baird recently wrote about this dynamic, which she calls “manologues,” in the New York Times and put words to my experience in the following statement: “Men take, and are allocated, more time to talk in almost every professional setting. Women self-censor, edit (and) apologize for speaking. Men expound.” In her article, Baird summarized the findings from a number of studies that support her statements as follows:

  • A study from Harvard found that the larger the group, the more likely men are to speak.
  • A Brigham Young and Princeton University study found that when women are outnumbered, they speak for between a quarter and a third less time than men.
  • Men talk more directly; women hedge and turn statements into questions.
  • Women are interrupted more by both men and women.
  • The more powerful men become, the more they speak; the same is not true for women. For good reason, women worry about a backlash that can occur when women speak more. A study from Yale found that both male and female listeners were quick to think that women who speak more are talking too much or too aggressively. Men are rewarded for speaking more, and women are punished.
  • A New Zealand study found that in formal contexts, men talk more often and for longer than women. Women use words to explore; men, to explain.
  • A Harvard study found that female students speak more when a female instructor is in the classroom.
Baird concludes that “including women is not the same as hearing women.”  

What Leaders Can Do to Ensure That Women Are Heard

Leaders can take concrete steps to ensure that women’s voices are heard in professional and workplace settings:
  1. Form gender-balanced panels in professional conference settings and encourage moderators to equalize the airtime allotted to women and men.
  2. Institute “no interruptions” rules in meetings.
  3. Ensure equal participation in meetings. Keep track of who is and is not speaking and call on people who are speaking less.
  4. Increase the number of women in leadership and on teams.
  5. Be an ally—draw attention to women’s contributions, and make space for them.
What has worked for you?   The image in this post is in the public domain, courtesy of Hans.  ]]>

3 thoughts on “Five Things Leaders Can Do to Help Women Get Their Voices Heard”

  1. Hi Anne,
    Thanks for tackling a subject that has been near and dear to my heart! Interruption, mostly be males who are present, has been one of the frustrations that trigger extreme anger in me. If I try to take back my ‘air space,’ they become more aggressive and even hostile. I’ve had men tell me to “smile” and will coach me through the process of taking back the control of a meeting, when they are the ones who take over in the first place!
    I’ve got many examples of the impact of this type of behavior in meetings and in classrooms, but seeing this articulated so well in your blog was very encouraging.
    Thank you! Kris


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