January 26, 2015 Practice Points

Speaking While Female

By Ariel E. Harris

In their recent New York Times article entitled “Speaking While Female,” which is the second of four essays in a series on women at work, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explore the reasons behind women’s silence in professional settings. Sandberg and Grant suggest that this silence may stem from a fear of backlash, or a desire to avoid being interrupted or shot down before finishing a pitch. They note that “[w]hen a woman speaks in a professional setting, she is walking a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.”

In particular, the article discussed some new studies that support these observations. For example, a study by Victoria L. Brescoll, a Yale psychologist, evaluating chief executives who voice their opinions more or less frequently, demonstrated that “[m]ale 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.” This is just one of several studies mentioned in the article, but it shows that these notions about women speaking in the workplace are not paranoia—they are accurate depictions of the experience of women at work.

Grant and Sandberg suggest that ways to interrupt this gender bias include: (1) adopting practices that focus more on an idea and less on the speaker providing that idea; (2) submitting suggestions and solutions anonymously in certain instances (this is not conducive to all work settings); (3) compelling leaders to step up and encourage women to speak and be heard; and (4) increasing the number of women in leadership roles. 

The article then provides an anecdote recounting the last news conference President Obama held in 2014. This particular news conference made headlines because the President called on eight reporters—all women. Sandberg and Grant conclude the article by challenging readers to try this approach, i.e., offering women the floor to speak whenever possible.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, gender bias

Ariel E. Harris works at Smith Moore Leatherwood, LLP in Charlotte, North Carolina


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