THE BLOG
01/14/2015 10:31 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Speaking While Female: Depressing but True

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"Speaking while female" stands to become the newest catchphrase from Sheryl Sandberg, who has been encouraging women to Lean In at work. A New York Times essay from Facebook's chief operating officer (along with Wharton professor Adam Grant) describes a number of research studies showing that both men and women punish female colleagues who speak up.

For example, a Yale University study found that male executives who spoke more often than their peers received competence ratings 10 percent higher. But female executives who spoke out more were rated 14 percent less competent than less talkative women.

I'm glad to see Sandberg discussing this research, because when I read her book "Lean In," my reaction was, leaning in to get a place at the table is great, but it doesn't always pay off. Throughout my career, I have fought to have my voice heard, but sometimes my assertiveness backfired. One female boss liked to lecture me about "not reading the room" well enough whenever I disagreed with the consensus of the group.

Recently, I was at a professional conference where we split into teams to tackle a problem and then present our solution to the group. I volunteered to deliver the presentation, but the only man on our team said, "It's okay. I'll do it."

Not, "Hey, I'd like to do it too, so why don't we flip a coin?" His attitude was the role was his for the asking.

"I'm good at presenting, and I'd like to have this opportunity," I responded firmly.

He rolled his eyes and replied, "Whatever."

My presentation went well, but I noticed something odd. Even though about 60 percent of the attendees were women, I was the only one who presented. And it was a woman who took on the secretarial role of taking notes for every single team.

Sandberg and Grant describe a variety of solutions to encourage women to have their voices heard. The best is more women in leadership positions, but failing that, they suggest offering women the floor whenever possible.

I tried this when I taught at the University of Missouri in the '90s. At the beginning of every semester, I cited research showing that men dominate classroom discussion. I told my class I was going to lean the other way a bit to make up for other classes they had taken. I would call on students of both genders even if they didn't have their hands up to ensure everyone participated. My teaching evaluations showed that students appreciated having a class that wasn't dominated by a few forceful personalities.

I hate to think that in 2015 we would need to give women preferential treatment to encourage them to speak up at work. But Sandberg's piece is a great wake-up call for any manager. At your next few meetings, ask someone to tally who speaks and for how long. Afterwards, see if any gender bias is apparent. If it is, you need to consciously encourage more female voices. But most importantly, if you already have women on your team who aren't afraid to speak their minds, encourage and reward them, especially when they're challenging the conventional wisdom.