Sheryl Sandberg the SEO of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org is contributing four essays to the New York Times as part of her series on women at work. Her most recent piece, “Speaking While Female,” explores the question of why so many women remain silent in meetings and other workplace exchanges.
She notes a conversation from years ago with Glen Mazzara, producer of the hit TV series “The Shield,” after he noticed that two young female writers barely spoke during story meetings. After privately checking in with them and inviting them to speak up more, they simply told him: “watch what happens when we do.”
The results were eye-opening for Mazzara. Nearly every time they started to talk, a man in the room interrupted them or dismissed their ideas before they finished the pitch. And if one of the women offered a good idea, a male writer would jump in and run with it before she had even completed her thought.
We’ve all seen this happen again and again in the workplace. A vocal woman in a professional setting finds herself walking a tightrope. There seems to be very little middle ground: a woman who speaks up is barely heard, or colleagues regard her as too aggressive. Yet a male counterpart saying the same thing is met with heads nodding in appreciation of his input. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.
A number of recent studies confirm these anecdotal reports. For example, a study by Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll shows that male senators with more power (as measured by tenure, leadership positions and track record of legislation passed) spoke more frequently before the Senate than junior colleagues. However, for female senators, rank did not correlate to more speaking time.
One hypothesis is that women I higher ranks remain quiet because they fear a backlash. Professor Brescoll asked men and women in high status professions to assess the competence of CEOs who voiced opinions more or less frequently. What they found was striking, according to Sandberg’s article:
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. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.
One of us, Adam, was dismayed to find similar patterns when studying a health care company and advising an international bank. When male employees contributed ideas that brought in new revenue, they got significantly higher performance evaluations. But female employees who spoke up with equally valuable ideas did not improve their managers’ perception of their performance. Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness.
Sandberg notes that this double standard is bad for businesses and organizations because it deprives them of useful ideas. Ethan Burris, a sociologist at University of Texas, Austin performed a study where teams were asked to make strategic decisions for local bookstores. A random member was given information that the bookstore’s inventory system was flawed, along with data about a better approach. In follow up analyses, he discovered that when women questioned the existing system and recommended the new one, the teams and its leadership saw them as less loyal, and were disinclined to implement their suggestions.
Organizations clearly need to make an effort to correct this gender bias. In the same way that orchestras using blind auditions increase the number of women selected, businesses can boost contributions from female employees by implementing practices that put less emphasis on the speaker and more on the idea itself (such as forums for making anonymous suggestions and solutions).
Of course much of our daily work can’t be carried out anonymously, so leaders also need to adopt measures to encourage women to speak and be heard. At “The Shield,” Mr. Mazzara devised a clever strategy to change the gender dynamics stifling his two female employees. He created a no-interruption rule while anyone — male or female — was pitching. Ultimately, the entire team worked more effectively.
Another long-term solution to the problem of “speaking while female” is to increase the percentage of women in leadership roles. As Sandberg argued in an earlier article on workplace discrimination, research indicates that for leadership skills, “although men are more confident, women are more competent.” And with more women entering the upper ranks of organizations, more of us are embracing women’s contributions and leadership. During President Obama’s final news conference of 2014, he called on eight reporters — all of whom were women. The news made headlines worldwide. Had a politician called exclusively on men to speak, it hardly would have been considered news; indeed, it simply would have been business as usual.
Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and the founder of LeanIn.org. Adam Grant is a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Give and Take.”