Speaking Up as a Professional Woman
“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
When Kamala Harris said these words during this week’s Vice Presidential debate and refused to be silenced by her male opponent, women everywhere cheered. Every professional woman has undoubtedly found herself in this position, being interrupted, talked over, or mansplained. Too often our response as women is to accept being silenced rather than to assert our voice as Kamala did.
We have learned to be silent due to fear of backlash when we do speak up. Research shows that female executives who speak for longer than their peers are viewed as less competent and less suited for leadership whereas male executives who speak for longer periods of time are viewed as more competent.
Recent shifts in the workforce as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may only be enhancing this gender gap. In a survey conducted by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, 45% of women business leaders said it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. Without body language and other in person cues, it becomes even more likely that women will be interrupted and talked over.
What actions can we as women take to make our voices heard?
- Stop apologizing. Analysis of the speech patterns of men and women show that women consistently apologize more using phrases such as “I’m sorry, but…” Because assertiveness in women is interpreted as “bitchy” many women overcompensate with apologetic language in order to come across as communal and agreeable, traits that are acceptable for women to display. However, apologizing unnecessarily places women in a subservient position and diminishes their power. Apologize if you are in the wrong, but otherwise state your opinions plainly: “I think…” without the preamble “I’m sorry.”
- Build allies. In most situations women do not negotiate as strongly as men. The reason comes back to negative perceptions of women who self advocate. This sort of behavior is seen as being in conflict with feminine ideals. The exception is that women are excellent negotiators when they are negotiating on the behalf of others. This is sometimes referred to as the “mama bear” effect. Therefore aligning with other women with similar interests and speaking up on their behalf can make you more effective at being heard.
- Amplify each other. Because speaking up in professional situations is difficult, we must support the women who are doing so. When a female colleague speaks up in a meeting, repeat her idea, stating your agreement or expanding upon it, and verbalizing credit to the woman who originated the idea.
Brescoll, V. L. (2012). Who takes the floor and why: Gender, power, and volubility in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly. 56 (4), 622–641. doi: 10.1177/0001839212439994
Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. (2015, January 12). Speaking While Female. Retrieved October 08, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html
Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. April 1973. Pg 45–46. Department of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley