Twenty years ago this month an American civil rights lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a brief which dramatically improved the rights of women. Thanks to her, the law giving preference to men over women in administering estates was overturned. She then went to the Supreme Court and convinced them that the law which guaranteed the wife of a military male automatic benefits, but required a military woman to prove her husband’s dependency in order for him to get benefits, to be unconstitutional. She continued to take on discriminatory laws for women and more victories followed. It is widely agreed that no lawyer in history has advanced the rights of women more.
Her stellar record resulted in an appointment to the Supreme Court but even there she admits she has trouble being heard. She was quoted in the New York Times saying that sometimes her comments are ignored in the justices’ private conferences until a male justice makes the same point. And it has been this way throughout her career- she recalled her early years as a female lawyer, when her comments in group discussions were not properly valued by her male colleagues.
Women in business know that this is a common occurrence – they’ll make a suggestion at a meeting that’s met with silence, only to see a man make the same point a few minutes later, to hearty approval and congratulations. After giving a speech recently, a young woman approached me to ask for advice on this topic. Having graduated college at the top of her class, she was used to getting excellent marks for her ideas rather than having them ignored. In the working world, however, she could only get her ideas implemented if they were subsequently suggested by a male colleague. She was not only confused, but indignant at the injustice of it all. I’ve heard women of all ages and stations discuss this problem, yet it is a phenomenon that men can’t believe exists!
Unfortunately, this happens to a lot to women, especially when they are just starting out. By the time I’d been in a company or department for a few years I had lots of credibility – the guys not only acknowledged my ideas, but would be quick to piggy-back on them, with a lot of sentences starting with, “Just like Betty-Ann said…” Whenever that happened, I knew I had finally established credibility with the group. Still, each time I started with a new male-dominated organization I had the same experiences as our young friend. I’ve found that it’s worse in a more hierarchical work environment where people are always looking to elevate their position in the pecking order; it’s less likely to occur in a more collaborative office where idea exchange happens more freely.
I’ve heard some women suggest that we should always call the group to be accountable by saying, “Excuse me, but didn’t I just say that?” While it’s tempting to stick up for ourselves, I think this can backfire by making us sound like we are whining and not being team players. Instead, I think it’s better to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are a couple of ideas for that:
1. Brush up on your communication skills. Too many women say things softly, don’t project their voices or allow their voices to rise at the end of a comment, making it sound like a question rather than a suggestion. None of these presentation methods will inspire others to salute your idea. By contrast, men will speak with more authority, developing and expanding the idea so it is more enticing. Their more confident, dominating style encourages others to fall in line. Women, being polite, will also tend to wait their turn to speak and will allow others to take the floor if they are interrupted. Doing this doesn’t inspire much confidence – people assume that the woman’s ideas can’t be all that good if she isn’t ready to fight for them.
I remember once being in a meeting and making a suggestion that wasn’t favored by a fellow I worked with. He couldn’t contain his disapproval, squirmed in his chair and then jumped in before I was finished. I simply ignored him and carried on making my points. Continuing to talk and asserting my opinion was a successful strategy, as my adversary eventually realized that he wasn’t looking good and backed off while I completed my comments.
2. Build a team of supporters. It’s critical to cultivate others that you can turn to (both inside and outside meetings). It’s not enough for a woman to raise a point and expect others to take it on board and respond. To ensure that her point is understood and accepted, she needs to initiate a response from specific individuals around the table, especially those with whom she shares a good level of mutual respect. For example, she could follow up her suggestion by saying, “Rob what are your thoughts on that?” By directly engaging one or two of her supporters a woman has a better chance of getting her point across and improving the level of respect from all those attending the meeting. Organizations run on networks of relationships and successful individuals will create a team by building trust with others. We all have goals, and if we want to reach them, it’s important to assess who can help you get heard.
Once again, we can take a page out of Justice Ginsburg’s book when it comes to building supporters. She spends time with a direct and gruff conservative colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia because they share the love for opera. Identifying your passion and finding others who share it will build a network of friends that make it easier to approach to discuss work issues later on. I realized early that none of us can operate as an island and invested heavily in getting to know the wives and children of my work colleagues. That ensured a common ground outside the office that made it easier to solicit their support on my projects at work.
Women need to be aware of the issues they are facing in getting heard and the things that they can do to make themselves more visible. If you are open to the process, accept the reality of the situation, and institute some of these tactics, you’ll gain a network of supporters, make progress in projecting your ideas and experience the gratification of being recognized for your contribution.