Women across the world, although much more represented in the workplace, on panels, in boardrooms, still struggle to be heard. Whether you are ‘mansplained’, ‘manterrupted’ or simply hesitant to speak up, make it your business to be heard.
For those of you who have heard of the above terms and even of the concept of ‘office housework’, will know that women take on as crucial a role in the workplace as they do at home.
Yet often their responsibilities in the overall functioning of the organization, in the overall execution of activities, is not translated into the ‘airtime’ they get and into the credit they get for achieved results.
There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
I am tempted to say, “until the lioness tells her side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” because we all know that the real hunters in the lions’ families are the lionesses…
Joking aside, this is a perfect saying to describe the issue in portraying women’s voices, in giving them credit for their achievements and in letting them influence developments or discussions as they unfold.
Whether it is at work, in the portrayal of women in the media or in the achievements accredited to women over the course of history, we have a lot of work to do. As a woman, you can start now by making your voice count.
Here are three reasons why you should start or continue to speak up.
Everyone Needs Airtime
When a task is assigned to you, it makes sense to ask questions to ensure a mutual understanding of the assignment.
Where things are unclear a good discussion can serve to elucidate the issues and where there are unrealistic expectations, a good discussion can serve to reduce the scope or even to say ‘no’ to unrealistic expectations.
Before embarking on an assignment, it makes sense to speak up during a meeting that will set you off on your task, if anything is unclear or unachievable.
Any client or employer will choose a candid discussion over a task that is misunderstood or not delivered. Yet often as a woman, we can find it challenging to speak up and voice our concerns.
Similar profiles are more likely to adopt similar points of view. If you have a diverse team physically present at a meeting, it is important that this is reflected in discussions and decision-making. Otherwise, this is simply tokenism diversity and not actual inclusion.
Make it a point of ensuring one good question during such a meeting: it need not be a question to provoke, it can be a question for clarification or guidance. It still amazes me to this day, how often I turn around the same question in my head, that a man has no problem blurting out as he sees fit.
It is time for women to get comfortable asking questions. The time men get to talk at meetings is up to 75 percent more than women.
Women need ‘airtime’ too, and it can be greatly increased by a simple tested trick: reserve the first three questions of question time for women. Women often weigh the pros and cons of voicing a certain point over and over in their heads before speaking up.
We, therefore, thrive with a little encouragement. After the women-led questions, you will often see that others who often keep quiet will also feel more empowered to speak up.
Weighing in on Important Strategic Decisions
Important decisions are often taken during meetings.
Those who speak loudly and convincingly manage to get their points across and weigh in on the final decisions.
You will often find that men have the upper hand. Sometimes they even get the upper hand by cutting women off. Men are three times more likely to interrupt women than they are to interrupt other men.
This ratio does not decrease the higher the level of the female worker.
Not even female Supreme Court Justices in the US are safe from such “manterruptions” as we commonly call them – even Ruth Bader Ginsburg is frequently manterrupted. She eventually developed a way of dealing with such interruptions by taking on a more male way of talking.
The female staff of the White House in the Obama administration developed a strategy to reduce these interruptions by men – “manterruptions” and “mansplaining” – by reinforcing each other’s points during meetings and referring back the woman who first brought the point up.
Mansplaining refers to another workplace habit of men explaining the same point a woman first brought up in different wording and then subsequently getting the credit for it.
Both issues can be addressed in strategies similar to those of the female White House staffers in the Obama administration.
Practices such as manterruptions and mansplaining should not refrain you, as a woman, from weighing in on discussions, and as a man, if you see other men do this, you can also step in.
Credit Where Credit is Due
In the previous paragraph, we touched on “mansplaining”.
What makes it so annoying, is that often the same point brought by a man will get more acceptance and credit. Somehow many still struggle giving credit to women – whether it is credit for a good idea or credit for hard work studying to obtain a certain title.
“Title dropping” is a frequent issue senior women face.
Whether male professors will mostly be addressed with their title, there is currently evidence to support the lived experience that many people feel more comfortable dropping women’s titles and even using a first-name basis with senior women than they do with senior men.
The next time you go to a conference, look out for this: check the airtime the female panelist(s) get and whether they are addressed using their full title and last name or whether their titles are instantly dropped.
If we want to show we value women’s achievements and voices, what better way to start than by giving credit where credit is due.
How to get from diversity to inclusion
Tied in with the three reasons were many tips on how to increase women’s airtime.
Whether you are a man or a woman, the most important thing is awareness. Is everyone at the meeting speaking enough? Do they get time to speak without interruption or backlash? Is there a diversity of voices and points of view?
If not, there are many ways to get started: a moderator role can be a role that can alternate, and the first three questions could be reserved for women, for example. You can get creative with the seating arrangement and adopt a “no interruptions policy”. If you only have one woman at the table, what can you do to increase the gender diversity to get to at least 30%? Is there an issue of women’s career progression in your organization?
These are some questions to get you started, so you can contribute to creating a more diverse and more gender-inclusive organization in which every voice matters.
For those of you still wondering if you yourself should speak up:
“Don’t fear confrontation. Fear what happens when you don’t speak up for yourself.”
The writer is a women’s empowerment champion, a connector and a skills development enthusiast.
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