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femme d'affaire funambuleIt continues to happen. Women offering good ideas in meetings are not heard or get talked over. Women recognize this scenario. A woman offers an idea; there is no response; within minutes a man (likely white) says the same thing and gets accolades – and credit. This can make a woman less likely to offer her ideas next time.

One reason this happens is women’s tendency to express ideas as questions or to use disclaimers or hedge language. This communication style makes a woman sound less confident or like she doesn’t much believe in the strength of her own idea. But coaching women to speak more confidently (more like men) is not the solution.

The second part of the current four-part New York Times series by Sharyl Sandberg and Adam Grant explores this problem. Titled “Speaking While Female,” the piece points to the key reason women are less likely to speak up (or be heard?) in meetings – the “double bind.” This is the “tightrope” that women, but not men, must walk to succeed at work. If they don’t speak up, hold the floor and speak with confidence, they are not heard or seen as leaders. If they do, they are seen as aggressive (called the “B-word”).

Sandberg and Grant cite three studies confirming the double bind problem. One of the studies is by Yale professor Victoria Brescoll. It, sadly, finds that if men speak more in meetings, their ratings as being competent go up; women’s go down. (In another, they stayed the same.)

Solutions? Pointing to how orchestras got more women musicians – by having blind auditions – they suggest that organizations create ways to make the source of an idea or work product anonymous. Recognizing this has limited application, they suggest organizations adopt a “no interruptions rule.” And they suggest hopefully that, when there are more women in leadership, the tightrope will be less an issue.

Joanne Lipman addresses the issue of women not being heard in meetings in her recent WSJ piece, “Women at Work: a Guide for Men.” Her advice to men is to ask women for their ideas. That is fine – but the idea solicited may run right into that double bind.

I told my boss that women often experience having their idea “stolen” by a man. He denied this ever happened – until it did in the next staff meeting. I opened his eyes; I believe he will always see it now. If men are aware of the double bind – really see it happen – they can do more. They can stop and give the woman credit, acknowledging that the man agreed with her great idea. They can “endorse” a woman’s idea when it is expressed. They can override any knee jerk thought about how aggressive a woman is who spoke up! And they can educate others to remove this tightrope!

Other ideas?