When women speak at work, does it make a sound?
The philosophical question about a tree falling in a deserted forest and whether it makes a sound hits too close to home for many women at work. Powerful men talk more than their junior peers and are judged more competent when they do. But even senior women are often penalized for speaking up. One way to change that is for women to amplify one another’s voices.
AMPLIFICATION HELPS WOMEN GET HEARD
Rise of the formal technique and term are generally credited to senior women in President Obama’s administration, but the concept of women working together to amplify their voices applies in almost all workplaces. Too often, the solid ideas women raise in meetings are simply ignored, or get absorbed into the general conversation and then attributed to a male colleague.
“Many women have personal experience being interrupted by male colleagues or seeing their ideas seem to go unheard until they are voiced by a man,” explains Libby Gill, executive coach, author and leadership expert. “Research demonstrates today that our intuition about this was spot on and that the inability of women to be adequately heard at work hinders career progress and stunts the exchange of valuable ideas in an organization.”
From the oval office to yours
Frustrated by seeing male peers garner more attention in meetings and their ideas get legs more quickly, women working in the Obama White House launched an echoing and supporting technique they dubbed “amplification.”
The idea is simple and powerful. When a woman makes an important point or suggestion in a meeting, and it’s either ignored or immediately shot down, other women at the table repeat the first person’s idea, giving clear support and credit to its author.
It works like this. When a female colleague offers a viable idea that goes unnoticed, another woman might say, “Let’s revisit what Jane said a moment ago about transitioning to regional sales teams. Her idea is strong because it utilizes current resources, enables greater customization and could provide new opportunities for sales leaders.”
The approach shines a brighter light on women’s ideas, opens space for women to elaborate and helps men recognize the contribution and its source. Repeating and supporting someone else’s idea can also give it more weight, as can highlighting their expertise, saying, for example, “Mary has a strong background in that area. I’d love to hear her thoughts.”
Amplification only works if female colleagues have one another’s backs in spaces where men tend to dominate and often (even unwittingly) pay more attention to thoughts from male colleagues. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything other women say, Gill cautions. “You just need to help provide the airtime and platform for marginalized people to be heard. That includes women as well as other underrepresented people and even introverts whose ideas may be overlooked.”
There is also nothing that precludes male allies from getting on board; they can help amplify women’s ideas as well and are in a powerful position to do so.
“By far, most men want to support women colleagues,” Gill explains. “But they sometimes think inequality has already been solved. They may not realize women are still paid less, promoted less and simply heard less. While we want to give voice to women, we also want to help men improve their ability to listen and hear.”
Like most things, the first part of the solution is recognizing the problem. Women have to consciously observe and recognize whether the issue exists in their workplace and in what settings it tends to manifest. Next, they need candid conversation with supportive colleagues who want to work together for solutions.
Women also need to look inward to check their own biases. Research by linguist Kieran Snyder found that men in the tech industry interrupted twice as often as women, but when women did interrupt colleagues, they were three times more likely to interrupt another woman.
More than words
Gill says the opportunity to amplify women’s voices goes well beyond words. “Women can exert powerful influences in one another’s lives by encouraging each other to reach higher and go for stretch positions,” she says. “We can also be on the lookout for career opportunities for one another. Take recruiters’ calls even when you’re not in the market and recommend a qualified female colleague,” Gill urges.
Mentoring to share knowledge, connections and shortcuts is another highly effective way to amplify other women’s voices. “Look for ways to give someone less powerful or with less of a platform the opportunity to share their expertise and have their ideas heard. Every organization needs more good ideas from a diversity of sources,” Gill says.