HUMAN RESOURCES / FEB. 04, 2015
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Why Speaking Up At Work Is Hard For Women

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Transparency is usually seen as a positive thing in our workplaces. We want information to flow rapidly throughout our organisations to ensure good decisions are made. This is especially true when the news is bad. Logic suggests that you want to hear bad news as soon as possible so that you can counter it, yet in reality, being the bearer of bad news is fraught with peril, and few whistleblowers ever end up popular in their organisations.

A new study suggests that how we perceive those who speak up depends very much on the gender of the person doing the talking. It suggests that when a man speaks up he is seen as powerful and competent. However, when a woman does so, she is not only regarded as less competent, but is also often criticised for speaking her mind.

“Despite its potential contributions to organizations, voice is a risky endeavor for employees, as it challenges the status quo and often threatens managers. Numerous studies have shown that many employees perceive managers as discouraging, penalizing, or punishing voice,” author Adam Grant notes.

The research saw participants from a health care company surveyed to try and gauge how often they suggested ideas for improvement within their teams.  The results showed that there was a marked discrepency in how male and female employees were treated when they did this.

“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,” Grant says. “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.”

Powerful Women Afraid to Speak Up

The truly sad thing is that this tends to happen even when the woman in question is a powerful one.  This was highlighted by a second study, conducted by researchers at Yale University.

“Powerful women are in fact correct in assuming that they will incur backlash as a result of talking more than others—an effect that is observed among both male and female perceivers,” the researcher notes.

Participants in this study were tasked with reading a short biography of an executive who was described as being either female or male. The biographies were largely identical, except one group of volunteers read a biography with the CEO speaking more than normal, whereas the other group’s CEO spoke less than normal. After they’d read the biography, each participant was asked to rate the CEO on things such as competence, knowledge, leadership ability and effectiveness.

The results were pretty depressing, with the ’female CEO’ heavily penalised for talking more than normal. That particular executive received significantly lower leadership ratings compared to the same profile for the quieter leader. When compared to the ’male CEO’ however, the difference was even starker, as the male leader was rated higher when he was more talkative, and much less so when he was quiet.

“These results suggest that high-power women are in fact justified in their concern that they will experience backlash from being highly voluble,” the author writes. “Results showed that a female CEO who talked disproportionately longer than others in an organizational setting was rated as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who talked for an equivalent amount of time.”

Hopefully, as more women gain positions of leadership this negative perception will change, and women will become empowered to speak up. For the time being, however, it seems that speaking up is something you do at your own risk.

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