It’s great that actor Jennifer Lawrence got us thinking again about women and how they (mostly don’t) speak up in meetings.
Lawrence wrote an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled Why do I make less than my male co-stars?, in which she talked about failing to negotiate more, and asked:
Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?
A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. 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.
I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! [Screw] that. 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.
This prompted a lot of discussion, as well as an Alexandra Petri piece in The Washington Post, Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting. Here’s just one of the “translations” that got even more people talking:
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m not an expert, Dave, but I feel like maybe you could accomplish more by maybe shifting your focus from asking things from the government and instead looking at things that we can all do ourselves? Just a thought. Just a thought. Take it for what it’s worth.”
These two articles rang true for many women, and when they were shared in my feeds, they came along with comments that expressed surprise that we’re still talking this way, or that it’s still an issue, or that it only happens sometimes, or that we women should just express ourselves without hesitation.
Just a thought: It isn’t quite that simple, or it would have been happening by now.
In the wake of Lawrence’s disclosure, I braced myself for the inevitable articles telling women how to negotiate better or be more confident about speaking up. I’ve come to hate this knee-jerk reaction when women raise legitimate issues about how they are being silenced.
We shouldn’t be telling women how to fix themselves, when it’s society that needs fixing. Enough leaning in and learning confidence codes. We ought, instead, to learn and remind ourselves about what’s really happening to women who speak and speak up-and has been happening to them, for centuries.
The author of a conversational analysis of men and women’s behavior and language in meetings said this, after reviewing the research more widely:
Study after study has found that, when other variables are controlled (education, expertise, etc.), women are responded to more negatively than men as measured by facial expression, gaze behavior, individual evaluations, and decision reached in task-based groups.
Translation: We can tell by the looks on peoples’ faces, where they shift their gaze, their own evaluations, and the outcome of decisions in a group that women are viewed more negatively than men when they speak in a meeting. That’s true no matter what your education level, expertise, or other factors are.
So the problem isn’t that you are incompetent in meetings. Even when you are competent, you’re viewed negatively for speaking up, by both men and women. This may sound depressing, but it’s better than thinking there’s something wrong with you. If you lack confidence, perhaps this is why—just a sign that you’re good at assessing your audience.
Rachel Dempsey’s Why don’t women raise their hands more? cites more research in this vein:
Studies have shown that men are more likely than women to project confidence when they’re uncertain, and that women are particularly hesitant when they’re being asked a question regarding a traditionally male domain.
She adds, “When you look at the cognitive biases behind gender stereotypes…women’s caution comes to seem like a survival mechanism, not a weakness.”
The question, however, is whether you want to survive or thrive and feel good about yourself. In this kind of environment, the way to thrive begins with calling it what it is.
Longtime readers have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: Women have had fewer opportunities to speak in our history than men have had, starting in the first century and going right up to today. Public speaking by women has been forbidden by law or strongly discouraged by society and that’s still true in many places today.
More recently, women’s speaking up is hemmed in by shaming behaviors, talking over and other tactics designed to silence women. After all, you can still hear women criticized as shrill—a medieval term for a woman who talks too much—in the workplace today.
You hear both men and women shaming women for speaking up, which really doesn’t help. No wonder women hesitate to speak, apologize for it, chalk it up to nerves, or try to find a nicer way to say that thing. Good luck being eloquent under those conditions, ladies.
A simple way we take women out of the lineup for speaking in workplace meetings is to ask them take notes. You’ll find some good workarounds for this in Ending Gender Bias: Why Richard Branson says everyone should take meeting notes, not just women. I like the whiteboard example at the end.
It was passed around like a plate of hors d’oeuvres by thousands on Facebook last week, which may suggest it’s a familiar silencer for my readers.
I don’t think you need to be fixed, women who speak up in meetings, but I do think we can all make a difference by:
- Having these discussions (thanks, JLaw, for getting it started this time) and being open to the idea that, yes, this is still going on;
- Reminding ourselves and other women that it’s not because we need more confidence or some other fix, although these situations might well rob your confidence;
- Backing other women up in meetings and helping give them room to speak by saying things like, “Actually, I want to hear what Angela has to say” when Angela gets shut down or talked over;
- Using your opportunity when chairing a meeting or moderating a panel to call on women as often as you call on men; and
- Expecting the backlash and countering it.
What would that look like? You could try, “Yes, it’s common in workplace meetings for both men and women to view women who speak up negatively-lots of research on that. But I think Angela’s point is important for us to consider.”
You might be even more direct and say, “You just talked over Angela and didn’t let her finish. I don’t ever want to see that happen again. Angela?”
That last sentence is a key phrase advocated by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, who say, “To motivate women at work, we need to be explicit about our disapproval of the leadership imbalance as well as our support for female leaders.” Grant’s research shows that that phrase encourages women to take more opportunities to lead (which helps, in turn, in speaking up).
Actor Emily Blunt was quoted last week saying that she thinks talking about sexism “exacerbates the problem.” The Mary Sue blog did a great job pointing out why it’s important to keep sexism part of the conversation, out loud:
Talking about sexism is important for lots of reasons. We need to examine media and the industry critically in order to create these initiatives. How we frame the problem determines how we solve it. For instance, if we say that the industry is predominantly male because women aren’t interested, then we can leave the industry as is. If we say it’s because women are genetically inferior and too emotional, than we leave it as is and keep women out. If we say it’s because the industry actively discourages women by denying them opportunities and reproducing negative images, then we need to challenge these representations and uplift women who are trying to enter the industry and women currently grappling with it.
That last point is particularly important. As Gloria Steinem has said, “Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people to do the same.”
This problem has been going on for centuries. I don’t expect it to go away quickly. I don’t think you are an exception. This happens to all women, whether they know or notice.
Next time, don’t be so surprised. Be ready to jump in, and understand the consequences aren’t about you. Instead of worrying about changing yourself, speak up with that “wait a minute.”
Let’s help one another speak up, eloquent women.
Denise Graveline is a Washington, DC-based speaker coach who has coached more than 100 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.