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What Happens When Women Are Asked to Speak Up During Business Meetings

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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In,” and Adam Grant, professor of management at the Wharton School, are crime fighters. What crime are they battling, you ask? When women are wrongfully accused of “speaking while female” in a room full of men.

The pair start out their piece in the New York Times — the second essay in a series of four on women at work — with a behind-the-scenes example from the television show “The Shield,” where producer Glen Mazzara noticed that two female writers were always quiet during story meetings. When he encouraged them to speak more, they replied, “Watch what happens when we do.” When they did speak up, no matter how good their ideas were, a male writer would interrupt, shoot down or finish their pitch for them. Women aren’t to blame — our society in general is.

Sandberg and Grant highlighted two important studies on how our culture reflects this unjust truth. A Yale study by psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll found that male U.S. senators with power (tenure, positions, past legislation) spoke more on the floor; for men, power was linked to speaking time, yet this was not the case for women with the same power. Brescoll then took the study deeper in a corporate environment and found that:

“Male 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. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking ‘too much’ will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.”

Similarly, in a University of Texas experiment where strategic decisions were needed for managing a bookstore, random employees were given suggestions for a better system.

“In subsequent analyses, he found that when women challenged the old system and suggested a new one, team leaders viewed them as less loyal and were less likely to act on their suggestions. Even when all team members were informed that one member possessed unique information that would benefit the group, suggestions from women with inside knowledge were discounted.”

Our current culture simply views women through a lens that prevents positive reception of their work, ideas and standing in society. Sandberg and Grant have a few solutions for that.

When it comes to ideas, anonymous input can bypass a gender bias. It works, as exemplified by how blind auditions for orchestras actually lead to the acceptance of more female musicians. The best ideas, whether they come from a man or woman, could get the credit they deserve if they weren’t sorted by whether they came from a male or female first.

However, ideas are one thing  — work, on the other hand, can’t be anonymous. Going back to “The Shield” example, Mazzara initiated a “no interruptions” rule while anyone was pitching so that all ideas in their entirety could be put on the table.

But Sandberg and Grant suggest a more long-term solution — put more women in leadership roles. Where women dominate the workplace, they are more likely heard than men. In one instance, President Obama made headlines during his last news conference of 2014 when he only called on only female reporters.

While these moves are great for empowering women, they still have their consequences. Some might suggest that giving leadership roles to only women, or only choosing on women to speak, brings awareness but is still in effect, unfair. It empowers one group, a group that’s been second-class since the dawn of time, at the expense of another, a group that’s dominated everything since the dawn of time. It might seem like a fair reversal of fortune, but it’s still not true equality.

Women shouldn’t have to “lean in,” speak louder or become more aggressive just to be heard. Ideas and work should be judged on quality alone, and not on who says it. But how do we get there? Perhaps Sandberg’s suggestions are necessary — purposefully offset the scale in favor of women until our society finds true equality. Perhaps it is time to put women in the spotlight, in management and creative positions.

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