How Diverse Are Voices at Your Meetings?

An editorial by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in The New York Times resonated with me. The “Speaking While Female” piece points to research showing that women tend to stay quiet during meetings. They do this not so much from fear as from experience that has shown them it’s futile to pipe up with ideas. As soon as they raise their voice with a new idea or a suggestion for improvement, they almost immediately are drowned out by a louder, more aggressive male voice. You could say that this is a problem solely of overly gentle, low- and middle-level women, but this editorial shows that’s not the case. It’s important to note that the piece’s co-author, Sheryl Sandberg, is among the most successful executives in the U.S. If she’s noticed, and probably experienced herself, this phenomenon, then can it really be a myth or a problem just for women who aren’t successful?

I participated in a meeting during one of my first years in the workforce in which we discussed ways for our company to improve its treatment of employees. There was a salary freeze in full swing, so I suggested that in lieu of a raise, a temporary fix could be the addition of vacation days to high-performing employees. No sooner had I opened by mouth, than a much louder and deeper-voiced mouth over the conference call speakerphone began shouting over me: “Ha, ha, can I pay my rent with vacation days? Can I pay my rent with vacation days?”

To my credit, I raised my much softer voice and shouted back my rationale—that it wasn’t a substitute for a raise, but one of a few different measures that could be taken in the meantime to improve our work lives. He piped down after that. I won that one, but continue to experience  bullying in the workforce from men that is probably so subconscious they are not aware they are doing it.

The drowning out of women’s voices in the workforce is usually more subtle than being vocally overridden during meetings. It most often takes the form of condescension. They let you know by, say, repeatedly ignoring your e-mails or addressing you like a child, that you are not to be taken seriously. For example, one of the tasks at my current full-time job as managing editor of an online health trade publication is to team up with my boss to capture doctor interviews on videotape. About five years ago, we were at a conference, stationed in a hallway, hoping to waylay doctors. My boss explained to me why it was so hard for him to do this, and why it should be so easy for me: “People finding me intimidating. You’ll be better at this than me.” I was taken aback, but after he said this more than once, I noted: “Roger, I don’t think anyone is intimidated by you.”

He didn’t say anything in response. I still wonder if he didn’t hear me, or whether he felt the thought was so unbelievable that it would be beneath him to respond.

The feeling that it’s beneath one to respond brings me to another subtle way women are discouraged to voice their thoughts. The Website I manage experienced a milestone in the number of registered readers. I do about 90 percent of the work on this publication—from generating ideas for the articles to writing and editing, assembling the graphical elements, long-term editorial planning, and beyond. The e-mail my boss sent about this accomplishment thanked the department as a whole as if my contribution were on par with the contribution of the person who sends the marketing e-blasts out. Understandably, I wasn’t thrilled. I sent an e-mail about the need, in a case like this, for individual recognition, giving credit where credit is due, and never got a response. I knew he saw the e-mail because he responded to all the other e-mails that were sent around the same time. My belief is that he felt I wasn’t owed a response. Would he have felt the same way if I were a man? I wonder about that.

The Sandberg and Grant editorial notes one possible fix for turning up the volume on women’s voices and ideas: having employees submit ideas in a “blind” fashion, taking a cue from the blind auditions some orchestras conduct in which the musician plays behind a curtain, so the decision-makers have no way of knowing whether applicants are male, female, African-American, Asian, white, etc. One of the ideas I have expressed in the past in this blog is to have all meeting participants submit ideas ahead of time, so the leader can give each idea a fair chance without falling prey to the loudest, rather than the brightest, voice in the room. To take this approach to the next level, make it possible in your intranet, or another online platform, for anonymous delivery of ideas. In addition to making it fairer for the employees, it will be an educational experience for managers, many of whom may be shocked where the best ideas come from. It’s sometimes hard to hear and think past the most aggressive and loud voice.

It’s also hard to understand why many of your women employees may be hesitant to even try to offer input. When you’ve been treated and spoken to like a child or an entry-level employee (even though you’ve been in the workforce as long as many of your male colleagues), you start to play to the role you’ve been given. Rather than forcefully pushing yourself forward (or “leaning forward,” as Sandberg calls it), you sit back like a timid child who’s there to follow directions, rather than to assume the lead.

How does your company ensure all voices are heard when new ideas are being generated? How do you encourage all employees—not just the most loud and aggressive—to push themselves forward?


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