From the Silence Breakers Time cover to the #TimesUp movement, global discourse has been more female centric in recent months than ever before. There seems to have been a much greater shift towards real change in gender dynamics and the empowerment of women has been given a real boost, whether as mothers, educators, politicians, entertainers, employees or leaders. But despite this, and the laudable trail blazers who have been breaking glass ceilings across the world for some time (e.g. Madeleine Albright, Mariam Al Mansouri, Malala, Ginni Rometty, Benazir Bhutto and Indra Nooyi), the voices of women in the workplace still aren’t heard enough.
That is costly for them and their organisations and both they and their organisations are to blame.
There are two key points to consider here. Firstly, women are worth listening to. Whilst Beyonce’s assertion that women run the world might not be an actual reality in business (less than 5% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs) their positive contributions are undeniable. An extensive 2016 study, funded by Ernst and Young, analysed 21,980 firms in 91 countries and determined that there is a “positive correlation between the proportion of women in corporate leadership and firm profitability.” It went on to say, “a move from no female leaders to 30% representation is associated with a 15% increase in the net revenue margin.”
Secondly, ignoring any voice is a grave mistake. We’re not saying everyone will always have something amazing to say, but the far greater risk lies in missing a potential spark of genius because your staff don’t feel comfortable speaking up. Google, in an effort to discover how to build the perfect team, conducted a study aptly named Project Aristotle. It found that “a group of superior individuals was less important than the collective ability of the team” and that the most successful teams were the ones in which every member “felt comfortable in taking risks and speaking their mind”.
Even former President Barack Obama recently spoke up about how crucial hearing women is, pointing out that if women are afraid to speak up or are talked over, a good boss should call on them and ask their opinion, according to him, “in today’s culture, if you are not deliberately doing that, you are going to fall behind and someone is going to beat you”. In his White House, female staffers had an amplification pact in meetings – when a women proposed a good idea, her female colleagues would repeat it so to ensure it was heard and not stolen.
So what can you do to be heard and what can you do as an organisation to listen?
The answer lies in self-awareness and self-confidence. You have to look at the reasons you don’t speak up and consider whether they are of your own making or whether you might need to have a HardTalk with someone. But, however you feel about speaking up, perhaps you might be nervous or are not very confident, remember that whilst you might not have the perfect answer every time, staying silent will almost always work against your best interests. As Madeline Albright says “the bottom line is, if you are only there not speaking, you have created the impression that you’re not prepared to be there.”
For organisations who know they need to improve, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a contributing Editor to the FT, had a few very useful tips:
• Give credit where credit is due
• Make sure everyone has a chance to speak – create a culture of participation for all of your meetings, make sure everyone is given an allotted opportunity to contribute and don’t conclude any meetings until that has been done.
• Listen as if you mean it – try to imagine you are listening to someone you greatly admire – it will immediately improve your body language and ensure others feel properly heard.
• Penalise interruptions – if someone is interrupting …step in and ask them to wait, or if you absolutely can’t, ensure you return to the (speaker) as soon as possible.
• Divvy up work chores fairly – when you are dividing up menial tasks, make sure you are being fair about who is assigned the work.
• Being self-aware enough to question your behaviour