my clients and many women in my research talk about how difficult it is to get their ideas heard in meetings and about the double binds they find themselves in when they try. Kathy, a technology manager in her thirties, explained, “They say that men interrupt each other all the time and women don’t. If I’m in a meeting and I interrupt, I get in trouble, but I don’t see men get in trouble when they interrupt me. They say that women don’t do it, but when you do, it’s seen as very aggressive and inappropriate.” Alice, a technology manager in her fifties, said, “There were eight men on the team and I was the only woman. It was a constant battle [to get heard], and I almost had to be perceived as a bitch to get my point across—and then I was perceived as a bitch.” Eventually Alice left this team and took a lesser assignment. In both cases, Kathy and Alice worked in predominantly male environments and were seen as aggressive and inappropriate when they pushed to be heard. It’s not uncommon for women of all ages in these environments to feel they are in a no-win situation and to then become silent in team meetings, or to leave, to the detriment of the team. In a recent article in the New York Times, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg wrote about the pervasiveness of women being interrupted or having their ideas shot down before they even finish speaking in meetings. They reported new studies showing the broad scope of the double binds for women in many workplace settings when they try to contribute their ideas. One study from Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll found that “male senators with more power (as measured by tenure, leadership positions and track record of legislation passed) spoke more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues. But for female senators, power was not linked to significantly more speaking time.” Another study by Professor Brescoll asked professional men and women to evaluate the competence of chief executives. She reported that “male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.” Grant and Sandberg report other studies showing that men who spoke up were rated as more helpful, while women who spoke up did not receive any increase in perceived helpfulness. We need to interrupt these patterns of double binds and punishments for women who try to speak up. These patterns not only harm and discourage women from participating, but also deprive organizations and teams of valuable ideas. Here are four tips to interrupt gender bias:
- Share ideas anonymously. Sandberg offered this method of soliciting suggestions and solutions to problems anonymously, to create a gender-blind environment for the evaluation the ideas. She compared this method to the discovery made by some orchestras that the only way they could achieve gender balance was to hold auditions behind screens so that the gender of the applicant was not known by the selection panel. It was also necessary for applicants to enter the audition on a carpet so that the sound of women’s high heels did not give them away as they entered. Magically, with the implementation of anonymity, these orchestras began to hire significantly more women.
- Encourage women to speak. Leaders need to notice when the women on their teams may have given up and stopped participating and then invite them to speak.
- Institute a “no interruptions” rule. Grant and Sandberg share this best practice used by a colleague that worked to make his whole team more effective.
- Increase the number of women in leadership. The presence of more women in leadership shifts these dynamics as people get used to women speaking and leading.