Kit Steinkellner
January 14, 2015 8:57 am

Do you ever read a piece and feel like you just got punched in the face because what you read was so painfully true and so absolutely applicable to your life? That’s how I felt when I read Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg’s New York Times piece “Speaking While Female” (subtitled “Why Women Stay Quiet At Work”). It came out earlier this week and it’s still resonating with me, in a major way.

Co-written with Wharton School prof Adam Grant, the piece examines a truth that most of us ladies are well aware of: in the workplace, it’s much harder for a woman to be heard than it is for a man, and women who stick to their guns and speak up often experience backlash for voicing their opinions (versus men, who are pretty much universally praised for being vocal and opinionated).

Sandberg and Grant explore several examples of how women are silenced in the workplace. They cite a study conducted by a Yale psychologist, Victoria L. Brescoll, that “…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.”

Brescoll had a hunch that these women were keeping a low profile because they feared the repercussions of speaking up. So she dug further, asking professional men and women to evaluate the competence of chief executives, factoring in how frequently they voiced their opinions. Her findings were kind of jaw-dropping. As Grant and Sandberg report:

“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.”

Grant brings another anecdote into the piece to illustrate this point. Here, we focus on a health care company in the process of 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.”

The piece is stuffed to bursting with examples of women being silenced in the workplace, and argues that this is not only terrible for women, but terrible for employers. If you are an employer that has created an environment where your female employees cannot speak up and/or will not be heard, your organization suffers. You cannot benefit from the great ideas of the women you employ.

So what can we do about the disturbing state of sexism in the workplace? Sandberg and Grant insist that the longterm solution to this problem is to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Their belief is that as more women take charge, “… people become more accustomed to women’s contributing and leading.”

I highly recommend reading this piece in full over at The New York Times. This article is the second in a series of four that Grant and Sandberg are writing about women in the workforce (the first piece, about discrimination against women in the workplace, and how bias awareness can sometimes backfire, is also well worth the read). Sandberg taught us all how to lean in, and she’s continuing to enlighten us when it comes to taking a hard look at the way gender is treated in the workplace.

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