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Womens voices must be welcome and included in the workplace

Women's voices must be welcome and included in the workplace

 December 17, 2021

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Women are making great strides in the workplace, yet it seems that having their voices heard in male-dominated meetings or business environments can still prove somewhat daunting and challenging.

With the world shifting online throughout and post the pandemic, gender bias applies to many situations like Teams and Zoom meetings. According to a report by advocacy group Catalyst, some 45 percent of female business leaders found it difficult to speak up in virtual meetings, while one in five women state they have been overlooked or ignored by colleagues in online meetings. 

Women, however, should not take such exclusion personally as this worldwide issue is much less a character flaw, but more so an example of how entrenched gendered social and cultural norms are in restricting women throughout their careers. 

The good news, however, is that there are many ways progressive, inclusive companies can work to break down inequality in the workplace. 

Unconscious bias in the workplace

So, why do many women feel threatened when it comes to using their voices in meetings? According to Brigham Young University (BYU) political-science Professor Jessica Preece, women are systemically seen as less authoritative, even if perceived unconsciously. 

Speaking to the University’s magazine about research into female experience in male-dominated study groups, Professor Preece explains, “And their influence is systematically lower. And they’re speaking less. And when they’re speaking up, they’re not being listened to as much, and they are being interrupted more.”

When researching the study groups in the collegiate accounting program, Professor Preece along with political science Professor Christopher F. Karpowitz and economics Professor Olga Stoddard, found that despite different genders enjoying the program, the university would no longer put women in teams alone with men. Why? Because while the women enrolled with higher grade point averages (GPAs) and wider leadership experience than the men, ‘having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice’ suggest the professors.

Women making themselves heard  

On the corollary, according to a Guardian article when women do make themselves heard, they can often be dismissed as being loud or pushy – so it is little wonder some female leaders may feel overwhelmed and hesitant about speaking up. 

A court case in the UK saw female physicist Dr Annette Plaut from Exeter University claim unfair dismissal. Described as a ‘Marmite character’ by colleagues during the tribunal, Dr Plaut had no problem having her voice heard in her male-dominated workplace, but was allegedly let go from her position because bosses were unable to tolerate her 'naturally loud’ voice and vigorous teaching style. Being the first female employee in the department apparently, Dr Plaut claimed she had long been subjected to unconscious bias. In what was seen as a landmark victory in breaking down gender bias within male-centric industries, Dr Plaut won the case. In its judgement, the tribunal concluded that “Senior management had decided that Dr Plaut would not be tolerated further. The good things she had done over the years were given no weight.”

The positive wider repercussions of the decision in recognizing that Dr Plaut’s competencies in her role were overlooked due to her outgoing and vocal demeanor are insightful. Not only is the limitation of women's speech in the workplace intolerable from a feminist perspective, but it is of course detrimental for business. 

Without inclusive workplaces where the voice of women is sought and valued, companies are consciously or unconsciously biased and this in turn can have a considerable negative impact on their business outcomes, employee morale, and company deliverables. 

Women having an equal footing in all aspects of the workplace has been proven to have a positive effect worldwide, both socially and economically. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report  reinforces that gender parity impacts the development of economies and societies. Additionally, McKinsey states that taking action to advance gender equality could be valuable in adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030.

Importance of inclusive workplaces where women's voices are heard 

Amplifying women's voices in the workplace enables fresh and diverse perspectives within a company. Discussing the BYU research, Professor Preece says women are more “likely to identify different things as problems in the first place.”

Professor Karpowitz agrees, stating hat “Women are more likely to think about, what are the needs of families and children and how do we care for those who have the least in our society?

“Many men focus on different priorities, such as how to balance the budget or change the tax structure. Some of my most impressive students have been women here at BYU whose core interest is, How do I simultaneously prioritize my family and my scholarly work? I never hear male students talk like that. Ever. And yet that balance...ought to be just as important for men.”

In fact, while Professor Karpowitz's work determined that women may find it challenging to influence a group’s decision unless there are a number of women present, his work identified that when multiple women were present and participating they gave and contributed more generously, and as such these groups left feeling happier about their decisions. 

The silencing of women is a systemic issue

So what can be done to help companies address he potential hesitancy of women speaking out?

According to Professor Preece, while the silencing of women is a systemic issue that often results in gendered messages shaping the rules of engagement, there are a number of aspects that can be achieved if companies are willing. “It's not women who are broken; it’s society that's broken. I’d like to see us focus on training people to be – and creating systems that are – supportive of women who speak up,” she explains.

Through educating employees about inclusive behaviors in meetings, companies can clearly benefit from the contributions of happier and more engaged employees and subsequently better business outcomes. Additionally, specific strategies can be adopted by women to support their confidence and impact. A Forbes article stated that being prepared, saying something immediately at the beginning and end of meetings, being curious, and refusing to self-censor are all impactful strategies to focus on.

As Professor Preece reminds, “We have lots of learning and unlearning to do.”

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