S SandbergIt will take me a while to study the recently published report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015. Sheryl Sandberg’s piece announcing the report in the Wall Street Journal, “When Women Get Stuck, Corporate America Gets Stuck,” takes little time to read. And it didn’t take long for the commentary to start. As of this writing (hours after it hit the internet), most of the comments are from men. And many of those can only be called defensive, hostile and closed-minded. I doubt many looked at, let alone studied, the report itself. They reacted to Sandberg’s article itself with hostility.

Some of the comments are vicious personal attacks on Sandberg. Many simply cling to the argument that women prefer a domestic role and don’t really want to reach the executive level. (Of course not all women, or men want to be in the C-suite; the issue is whether there are barriers that make it harder for women to get there if they want to.) Several argue that CEO’s need to focus on profits, not diversity. (This ignores diversity as a source of good decisions, innovation and profits.) One trounced Sandberg for claiming, without citation, that there is a great deal of research showing that companies with gender-diverse leadership do better. (The citations are in the study – not the piece announcing the study. Need citations? Here are some.)

The article, or maybe the study or Sandberg’s outspokenness on the issue of gender diversity, obviously hit a nerve. Fifteen years ago, Susan Faludi’s book Backlash was published. The comments to this article reek of backlash. They show deep-seated fear, misunderstanding and closed-mindedness.

In my work – to help companies achieve gender-diverse leadership – I focus on the unconscious mindsets that create obstacles for women. These comments reveal more than unconscious bias. They sadden and frustrate me. We do, indeed, have a long way to go!

How do you feel about the comments?

women's voices

Women’s voices are being suppressed all over the world.” Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, speaking on foreign nations’ practice of incarcerating women who speak out in dissent.

Research galore shows that organizations do better and get better results when their leadership is gender-diverse. That is true in part because the best decisions are made with a balance of masculine and feminine styles. I, for one, want women’s and men’s voices to be heard at the “big tables” where important policy issues are addressed – the environment, climate change, poverty and war to name a few.

In our western culture, in particular in the U.S. corporate world, women’s voices are not “suppressed.” But they are often not fully heard. Why not? Let me suggest four challenges, with the hope that awareness can help us better hear women’s voices right here in the USA.

  1. The feminine style of speech sounds less confident.

The average man speaks in a way to enhance status. He speaks in declarative sentences, sounding confident regardless of whether he has the facts or expertise. The average female values relationships more than status. She speaks more humbly, keeping herself equal with others rather than sounding superior. Even when sure of her point, a woman often disclaims, hedges and poses her point as a question.

In the business world, where the masculine style is the norm, the feminine style of speaking is heard as lacking in confidence. We associate confidence with competence – though the correlation is very weak. Deborah Tannen says there are two “languages” – “report talk” (masculine) and “rapport talk” (feminine). Only if we are “bilingual” can we be sure to hear the value expressed in a feminine style.

2. Women don’t assert themselves until they really know.

Studies show that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Paralleling this phenomenon, women may speak up when they are sure they know what they are talking about. Taking greater risks, men may speak up when they actually know less. In other words, women may appear less confident because their internal threshold for confidence is different.

3. Women get “talked over.”

If a woman speaks in a feminine style in a meeting, she is often “talked over.” Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant addressed the question of why women remain quiet at work in their article about the challenges of “speaking while female.” In my programs I find many women who have had the experience I have. I say something I think is valuable; I get no response; minutes later, a man says the very same thing – and is congratulated for his brilliance.

Women often give up the floor when interrupted; they were taught to share and find it difficult to keep speaking when interrupted – and awkward to shout or to interrupt others.

Men are more likely to have “assumed credibility,” while women have to earn respect for their intelligence and competence. We may listen differently because we associate the male voice, more than the female voice, with authority. (This underlies the studies showing that men are promoted based on potential, women on results.)

4. Women who do speak up are penalized.

Women who speak and act assertively face the “double bind.” If they speak in a feminine way, they are not seen as leaders. If they speak assertively and confidently, they may be judged differently than a man – e.g., “Who does she think she is?” This tightrope makes it riskier for a woman to speak.

My goal is to increase awareness of these challenges – so women’s voices, as well as men’s, are heard, loud and clear. If we assure we hear women’s voices right here at home, we can make a difference for women whose voices are truly suppressed. Business decisions will be better. The world will be better.


higher ed vs businessOh my! Such an onslaught of women in the traditionally male world of business. Will they take over? Men need help. Or so said a (male) friend recently after hearing a news report on the radio. The report reviewed the ongoing trend of women earning more college and graduate degrees. According to the most recent statistics from NCES, in 2013, women earned 57% of B.A.’s, 59.9% of M.A.’s and 51.6% of doctoral degrees. A recent edition of The Economist explored causes of “girls’ educational dominance.”

I agree that we need to understand why fewer men than women are entering and succeeding in higher education. Ideally the educated pipeline would mirror the overall population. If one group (e.g., men) is being disadvantaged by aspects of the way we educate, we should address it. But I am not worried about men. Or at least I’ll let others worry about them.

Yes, women are proportionately over-represented in the educated talent pipeline. Yet in business they are under-represented above the entry level, and under-compensated, compared to men. According to Catalyst, women represent 45% of the total workforce in the S&P 500. But, at every rung of the corporate ladder above entry level, the percentage decreases – 36.8% of middle management, 25.1% of executive officers, 19.2% of boards of directors and 4.6% of CEO’s.

My mission is to help correct this – so women are proportionately represented all the way to the top. We knew 40 years ago, when women first entered the business world in large numbers, that it would take time. With women earning more degrees in many countries for decades, notes the Economist piece, that excuse “is wearing thin.” The article cites Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin, concluding,” [T]he ‘last chapter’ in the story of women’s rise—equal pay and access to the best jobs—will not come without big structural changes.”

In other words, my mission is not yet accomplished. Women are clearly being disadvantaged by aspects of the world of work, and we have not yet addressed it. Others can work on helping men match women in earning degrees. I am better qualified to keep pushing on my vision of gender diversity all the way to the top.

What do you make of the data on higher education — vs. the data on women in business leadership?

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