Speak Up! Finding Your Voice at Work

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A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times printed an article entitled Speaking While Female; Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on Why Women Stay Quiet at Work  written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and founder of LeanIn.org, an organization dedicated to empowering women and Adam Grant,a professor at the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Arguably, Sandberg is one of the most powerful female voices of our generation…so why is she writing an article outlining the reasons that women routinely keep their opinions to themselves in the workplace?  Clearly it’s something that she’s observed happening to women and, quite possibly, it’s happened to her too.

The article lays out a typical scenario – a meeting of peers in a typical workplace, the group is engaged in a dialogue, but when the women in the group offer insight or ideas, they are ignored, talked over, or just plain shut down.  Has this happened to you? I know it’s happened to me on more than one occasion. It doesn’t feel good when that happens. In fact, it’s completely demotivating and demoralizing.  And here’s the catch – if you get more forceful when giving your input,  you develop a reputation as, “aggressive” and “not a team player.”

To counteract this generally unintentional gender bias, some employers have implemented a “no-interruption” rule. Each employee is given the opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas without being interrupted.  Not surprisingly, those employers found that their teams were MORE productive!  While corporate-imposed manners are nice, I don’t know if they are necessarily helping women to find their “voice.”  We’ve been told by society that we need to be polite, kind, and not interrupt, but those rules don’t seem to apply to the guys in many male-dominated workplaces.  It makes me wonder what do we have to do to be heard?

I think political pundit Rachel Maddow got it right on an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Maddow, who hosts her own show and has interviewed some of the world’s most powerful leaders, is no shrinking violet. She has a commanding presence, has a raw wit, and is thoughtfully intelligent. While sitting on a panel of three, two men and Maddow, she was attempting to share some information on the economy, after unsuccessfully trying to chime in to the conversation several times, she finally had to physically stand up to get the attention of the two men. Finally, they recognized her and heard her thoughts…but it took the physical act of standing to get them to hear her.

It makes me wonder what women have to do in the workplace to be heard.  Socially, we’re conditioned to be nice, polite, and to take care of other people’s feelings and needs.  Maybe we need to stop. Maybe we all need to stand up.


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