As a communication coach, I pride myself on giving thoughtful constructive advice. So, you can imagine how concerned I was when someone told me my guidance was wrong.
At a leadership communications program for women, I had a conversation with a young woman climbing the corporate ladder. She asked my opinion about the following:
a) An older senior female manager told her to stop coming across so confidently. What should she do?
b) The same women who is several positions above her also said when someone more senior enters a room, if all seats are taken, she should relinquish hers to them.
What did I think? Not knowing the specifics of the situation or relationship between the two women, I responded in general terms and said:
a) If my choice is between coming across as self-assured versus not confident, I’ll choose confident every time. Confident men are frequently termed ‘assertive’ while confident women are labeled ‘aggressive’ or even ‘bitchy’. I’d rather be a ‘bitch’ with an opinion than a wallflower whose viewpoint and ideas aren’t heard.
b) I give my seat to older or handicapped people and to pregnant women. But if I’m invited to a meeting and feel I can contribute, then I believe I have as much right to sit at the table as someone who ranks above me.
The person who said my advice was wrong insisted juniors should always give their seats up to more senior employees. He also said that junior people, male or female, who display too much confidence risk being perceived as know-it-alls.
I couldn’t disagree more. Actually, I could. I strongly believe that despite the fact that women account for nearly half of the labor force in the S&P 500, there is still great disparity between how men and women are perceived in the workplace and research backs my opinion.
According to a 2014 article in Fortune Magazine examining if gender plays a role in the type of feedback employees receive at work, men are given constructive suggestions. Women are also given constructive suggestions – but told to pipe down.
In the report, linguist Kieran Snyder collected 248 performance reviews from 28 large and small companies to see if she could quantify the double standards in the way male and female employees are evaluated. The reviews came from 180 male and female managers. Women received far more fault-finding feedback than men: 87.9% of women received critical feedback compared to only 58.9% of men’s reviews.
Not only did women receive more criticism in their performance reviews, it was less constructive and more personal. Feedback to men contained suggestions to develop additional skills. For example: “it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details.”
Women received similar feedback, but theirs included personality criticisms such as “watch your tone” and “stop being so judgmental.” For example: “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. You need to pay attention to your tone.” The report concluded “abrasive” alone was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but the word never appeared in men’s reviews. Despite the official research, I decided to conduct an unofficial opinion survey of professional women from different generations. First, my 81 year old mother who ran the Philadelphia Society of Clinical Psychologists for more than thirty years. She said: “If I know what I’m talking about I’ll speak up and if I don’t, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
She then repeated a story from a 1974 board meeting when a senior male psychologist who objected to her opinion said “sit there and look pretty”. My mother, clearly ahead of her time got up and left the room but not before she turned and said: “Don’t you ever speak to me that way again. You invited me to this meeting and I have a right to speak.”
She said her outburst angered the psychologist, but she gained even greater respect from the rest of the group.
Next, a 65 year old retired health and physical education teacher who recalled that women’s rights started when she was in her teens. She said she wished she could be more like today’s young women who she perceives aren’t afraid to speak their mind. Back then, she used to fume when she wasn’t treated as an equal, but wouldn’t say anything for fear of being perceived as antagonistic.
Then there’s my 48 year old client, a communications director at a healthcare company. The very notion that someone would pull rank annoyed her.
“Unfortunately, in business, there can be a dictatorship.” She said “it sounds like that senior woman feels entitled because she’s on the King’s court.” She also pointed out that behaviors stem from the top down and it’s likely the senior woman had a boss who treated her that way.
Danielle, a 25 year old pharmacist said she would respond by asking the senior manager what she meant by “too confident” to determine if she could learn from the advice or if it was just a hierarchical struggle for power. However, she believes “it’s extremely important for women to show confidence, especially in their field of expertise and rank doesn’t necessarily equal expertise.”
In response to giving up a seat at the table, while it’s important to show respect, all of these women believe the person who has the most to contribute to the meeting topic should be the person sitting at the table.
So, as 2016 begins, women continue to fight the same fights as generations before them. Today, we make up half the workforce and hold more management positions than ever before, yet we are still judged differently when we communicate.
• A man can lose his temper. A woman is overly emotional.
• He takes his time to think things through. She can’t make up her mind.
• He is detail oriented. She’s picky.
• He’s ambitious. She’s bossy.
As a young outspoken girl, I was often told “keep your mouth shut”. Then and now, I’ve always subscribed to activist Gloria Steinem’s approach of “behave as if everything matters, because sometimes it does.”
Steinem, a champion of gender equality whose voice was often heard admits never speaking up when she was dismissed as “just a pretty girl.”
Yet, it was her voice and the voice of generations of women that have shaped change. It would be easy to list stereotypical tips of what women should do to communicate like men, but women are not men. We have our own communication strengths and we should use those strengths to motivate, connect and lead.
Whether race relations, religion, politics or gender, speaking up is what ignites change and opens more seats at the table.
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