Does Speaking Up Benefit Women?

Well, this is depressing, if unsurprising:

A lot of research suggests that those who speak the most in groups tend to emerge as leaders.

But does it matter who speaks up, or how they do it? In a forthcoming article in Academy of Management Journal, my colleagues Elizabeth McClean, Kyle Emich, and Todd Woodruff and I share how we explored these questions in two studies. We found that those who speak up can gain the respect and esteem of their peers, and that increase in status made people more likely to emerge as leaders of their groups — but these effects happened only for some people and only when they spoke up in certain ways. Specifically, speaking up with promotive voice (providing ideas for improving the group) was significantly related to gaining status among one’s peers and emerging as a leader. However, speaking up with prohibitive voice (pointing out problems or issues that may be harming the team and should be stopped) was not. We further found that the gender of the person speaking up was an important consideration: The status bump and leader emergence that resulted from speaking up with ideas only happened for men, not for women.

The researchers studied cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point and Master Workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk:

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions, in which they listened to an audio recording of (1) a man speaking up with an idea for improving the process, (2) a woman speaking up with an idea for improving the process, (3) a man pointing out a problem with the process, or (4) a woman pointing out a problem with the process. Participants then rated how much status they perceived the speaker to have in the group and answered several questions about how effective the speaker was in influencing the team (a common method of assessing leadership emergence).

Across both studies—using both field and experimental research designs and very different populations of respondents—we saw the same pattern of results: Men who spoke up with ideas were seen as having higher status and were more likely to emerge as leaders. Women did not receive any benefits in status or leader emergence from speaking up, regardless of whether they did so promotively or prohibitively. Neither men nor women who spoke up about problems suffered a loss of status or had a lower likelihood of emerging as a leader (though they weren’t helped by speaking up, either). Also of note, men and women both ascribed more status and leadership emergence to men who spoke up promotively, compared with women who did so.

The researchers suggest,

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Virtually every corporate meeting

Managers who want to promote gender equity on their team — or who just want to make sure they are getting as many good suggestions from their team members as possible — will have to proactively work to counteract the tendencies uncovered in our research. After all, one interpretation of this study is that women, even when they speak up and “lean in,” still may not get equal credit for doing so. And if that is the case, then it is essential not only for women to speak up but also for those around them to give equal weight to what they say.

One way to address this challenge would be for managers to amplify women’s ideas by intentionally giving extra attention to their suggestions. After all, if our natural tendency is to give less recognition to women’s ideas, then we will need to make an extra effort to overcome this bias. And given that women are interrupted more often than men are when speaking up in groups, we suggest managers be vigilant about ensuring that equal respect is shown to women when they are voicing their ideas.

Another approach is to document ideas in real time in order to ensure appropriate credit and recognition is given to each one. Some simple ways to do this would be to write ideas on a whiteboard and note whose idea it is, or to have an email folder for suggestions where people’s ideas can be saved electronically.

Lastly, managers should make it a point to call on women in meetings to hear their input, or to find less formal contexts to ask for women’s improvement-oriented suggestions. These recommendations may also help address another longstanding issue regarding women and voice: that women tend to speak up less in mixed-gender settings.

1 thought on “Does Speaking Up Benefit Women?”

  1. I am confused how the data collected leads to the conclusions drawn. Are instant reactions to one-kff recorded conversations at all similar to actual live group dynamics over lengthy periods of time? What guarantee that this doesn’t fall prey to the same problem taste testing haves–first impressions based off a sip poorly predict how well people like drinking the entire thing, much less whether people will happily incorporate it I into their diet? The results don’t seem to tell us anything about how leaders *emerge* –just who we think leaders *are.* One could show a group of people four photos, one showing a man in a suit in the oval office, another in a cowboy hat, and a third in a golf shirt and ask them to conclude which looks most presidential. That the majority would choose the man in the oval office picture does not mean we should conclude, “presidential status emerges from standing in the oval office.”

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