Silencing: Look Who’s (Not) Talking

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud:

The silencing of women isn’t a new phenomena but lately it’s been getting more attention. When Mitch McConnell forced Elizabeth Warren to be quiet on the Senate floor, the event spawned thousands of Nevertheless She Persisted t-shirts. The #MeToo movement arose because women’s silence about our mistreatment is usually a given. Now the mainstream press is giving certain male presidential candidates attention while all but ignoring the female candidates. Their ideas – and they have many – aren’t being covered. And these are just a few examples. Men silencing women happens a lot. In fact, it happens so frequently that people think it’s normal.

Case in point: during my doctoral training, I was lucky enough to be able to do some co-counseling with one of my male colleagues. Scott and I worked well as a team until we started counseling a single father and his son. During that session, every time I asked a question, the father directed his answer to Scott. It was like I wasn’t even there. After a while, the son started doing the same thing. Eventually I stopped talking. Why bother?

Later, Scott said he’d noticed that I stopped talking but didn’t understand why. When I told him, he said I was imagining things. Usually that’s where it would have ended. He would walk away shaking his head at crazy women while I would question my perceptions. But I got lucky. Our class decided to do an Interpersonal Process Recall exercise in which we watched a tape of the session and discussed our feelings throughout it. After several instances of me pointing out the father ignoring me, Scott was shocked to realize I was right. While it was nice to be vindicated, it was depressing to realize that the dynamic of men ignoring and silencing women was so commonplace that only I – the marginalized person – was aware of it.

My experience would come as no surprise to Australian researcher Dale Spender who spent her career analyzing language to see how conversations and words are used. She’s been pointing out the power of speech to silence women for years. During one study, she found that women spoke for only 8% to 38% of the conversational time. If women try to talk for even just 50% of the time, they often feel (or are made to feel) as though they are being unfair, rude, and objectionably overbearing.

Dr. Spender tried it out through a qualitative study with some of her male colleagues. She engaged them in conversation and tried to take half of the conversational time. Few would even stay for the three-minutes she deemed as the minimum interaction time. When she finally did hold a conversation, she refused to be interrupted even though she felt uncomfortable. This feeling of distress doubled when her male colleague accused her of not listening to him. Dr. Spender continued to feel bad until later when she found that, despite her efforts, she only controlled the conversation for 44% of the speaking time. Well. That’s an intriguing observation especially since conventional wisdom holds that women talk more than men.

Dr. Spender’s research was done in the 1980s but apparently things have not changed much, at least according to an article by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. They cited several fairly recent (2011, 2012 and 2013) studies, all of which conclude that women who speak up – no matter how high their status or how good their ideas – are viewed more negatively. I’m sure that feels familiar to Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and the other women running for president. In fact, women’s good ideas tend to be ignored until they’re picked up and offered by a man. Then they magically change into something people are willing to consider.

This propensity for women to go unheard happened in the early days of the Obama administration until women staffers took matters into their own hands. They developed a way of behaving they called amplification. When one woman offered a suggestion or made a good point, the other women in the room would repeat it, giving credit to the original speaker. This forced everyone to acknowledge the contribution and prevented men from taking women’s ideas as their own. Soon people noticed the women’s impact and President Obama started requesting more women join the meetings. You might imagine that being married to Michelle – such an accomplished, amazing and intelligent person – he would’ve already recognized women’s talents but cultural norms run deep.

Obviously, the issue of silencing women has big implications, not only for women in leadership and professional positions but also for organizations that are missing out on a lot of talent by silencing competent people. And there are some easy fixes that smart businesses are already implementing: blind auditions, making suggestions anonymous, no-interruption rules, giving women the floor whenever possible, and increasing the number of women in the overall organization. It’s not enough. If we truly want to make a change, then the work has to be done at the interpersonal level. But that’s a far greater task. Just ask Dale Spender.

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