Speaking Up

I’ve spoken recently with several women who’ve posed a form of these questions:

“Why do I have such a hard time speaking up?”

“Why do I so often leave meetings and interactions frustrated that I didn’t say what I really wanted to say?”

This topic could take several blogposts (or possibly a book of Tolstoyian scope).  And I am desperately anxious to hear what you think.  I’d love to start a dialog here, because as women gain more and more traction in the workplace, we all need to learn the best ways to communicate with the other gender.

(Now I have also worked with hundreds of men who are similarly challenged about speaking up. Clearly this issue transcends gender.  And yet, it seems to plague women more than men ….)

As a representative of the male gender, who am I to speak about the challenges women face in this regard?  I can only observe what I see in the interactions between men and women in the workplace.  And listen to what women have to say.  And notice the clear and insidious cultural factors that suppress women’s abilities to speak up:

  • Hierarchies that consciously or subconsciously keep women “in their place” are still rampant.
  • Many men (mostly older men gradually transitioning out of the workforce) are still threatened by strong women.

In the interests of starting a conversation, here are some questions to consider:

  • Are we still sending the cultural message that women shouldn’t be too strong or too outspoken? Do too many of us still see strength and confidence as “masculine” qualities? From my 54-year-old perch, things have changed dramatically in my lifetime – and we still have far to go.
  • Are many women still operating from self-limiting beliefs? Might there be some passive aggression in the attitude that “there’s no point in speaking up because no one will listen anyway”?
  • How much of the challenge comes from communication tactics? Are women trying to match testosterone levels with their male co-workers? Aren’t there practices, such as inquiry, that allow us to gain power and influence without excessive conflict? Is it just an issue of learning new paths to power rather than trying to address huge cultural or psychological roadblocks? If we can’t change the world, we can at least change the way we act in the world.
  • How much of this – really—is a women’s issue, as opposed to a leadership issue? I work with some predominantly male organizations in which no one speaks up about anything.  I want to be sensitive to gender dynamics, and yet part of me wants to just talk about speaking out in general as if it weren’t primarily a challenge for women.

The health of any organization is dependent on the open exchange of thoughts, opinions, concerns, questions, and aspirations. The strongest organizations are full of courageous dialog. How do we help women—and men—learn to speak their minds in a way that feels good and right and gratifying? …

          Your thoughts, please …

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

2 thoughts on "Speaking Up"

  1. Judy Feldman says:

    Hmmmm. With each passing year, I become more and more outspoken. When I leave a meeting thinking “why didn’t I speak up?” it’s seldom because of gender issues, but more likely because of my personality. I’m an introvert. I don’t like to interrupt. I wait my turn, and sometimes it doesn’t come before the meeting is called to a close. So I wonder how often THIS is the case. And I wonder how the E/I issue is split over the genders.

  2. Connie says:

    As a young professional, I believe that it is a testament to my generation that when at meetings or with colleagues I speak up and the response is less than stellar, instead of assuming it is a gender issue, I realize that maybe what I’ve just said really isn’t that phenomenal.
    While I am comfortable speaking up at meetings, my female and male colleagues who aren’t frequently reference the fear of being attacked or judged negatively for their thoughts. It really is a difficult challenge to overcome; how do we become comfortable with knowing that what we say might piss someone off without going through years of confidence building therapy!?

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