Use Your Power Voice by Gloria Feldt
A woman offers an idea in a business meeting. No one responds. Ten minutes later a man gives the same idea. He’s applauded around the table. If there is one experience universally reported by women when I teach or speak, that’s it.
“Did they not hear me?” they ask incredulously.
Female political candidates, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They are heard. Oh my, are they heard. But not in a good way.
Their vocal and physical communications are scrutinized by voters, analyzed by the media, and mocked by their adversaries at a level that (notwithstanding Orange Trump jokes) male candidates rarely endure. Because of the focus on their gender rather their agendas, female candidates’ ideas are often ignored just like women in business meetings. In both instances, their contributions are not given the credence they deserve. They are stuck in Goldilock’s dilemma: their voices are too big or too little, never just right.
Goodness knows Hillary Clinton’s vocal and facial expressions have become a petri dish for implicit bias. After that ill-fated exchange between Hillary Clinton and NBC’s Matt Lauer, RNC head Reince Priebus criticized her for not smiling during the tough questions. Then in the September 26 debate, she was accused of smiling too much, while historian Douglas Brinkley warned she mustn’t sound “schoolmarmish.”
You could get whiplash.
But Clinton isn’t the only female candidate who dances on both edges of this sword. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation 2016 report entitled “Politics is Personal: Keys to Likability and Electability for Women” found that “Voters will support a male candidate they do not like but who they think is qualified. Men don’t need to be liked to be elected. Voters are less likely to vote for a woman candidate they do not like. Women have to prove they are qualified. For men, qualification is assumed. Women face the double bind of needing to show competence and likability.”
What women say is often drowned out by a din of mental resistance to their pantsuits, their higher pitched voices, their very beings. Women who speak powerfully suffer the blowback of stereotype threat, disrupting not just leadership roles traditionally held by men, but deep-seated ideas about what men and women are supposed to do in life.
Let’s face it. Until a woman’s leadership is as routine as men’s, her voice will be perceived consciously or not as abnormal, and the resulting cognitive dissonance will likely elicit bad behavior in response.
Success and likability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women. That’s one reason women over-prepare–they know that to be taken seriously they have to be the smartest, hardest working kids in the room, and that their presentations must be measured to be heard. That in turn is not perceived as sexy or exciting as the fellow rocking a flamboyant vision, flailing hands, and booming assertions.
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation report offers techniques to navigate that double bind. While men can claim personal successes as well as praising their teams, women candidates have no such leeway. The “I” must be a “we,” credited to the team not the individual.
Advice like this could be infuriating, but at least it lets us know we aren’t crazy thinking that different rules apply to us.
Time to change the question altogether. Let’s ask: how can women (and men who support gender parity) change not themselves but the culture so women’s voices literally and figuratively are judged on merit not minutiae?
First understand the game to change it. And no, it isn’t that men and women are hard wired differently. Nor is there a secret plot against women. The late leadership guru Peter Drucker rightly said culture eats strategy for lunch. Both men and women have been shaped by the culture we grew up in and it will take proactive consciousness raising to elevate their own and their women friends’ awareness of the ingrained gendered biases in both policy and practice.
Second, Flip the script. Sometimes injustices are so pervasive no one can see them until they switch roles and disrupt their perceptions. Envision a person of the opposite gender saying or doing the thing you feel negative about. Do you react differently? Ask why and discover your own internal censor.
Third, use the power of your voice even if you get push back. Speak your truth and it will become THE truth.
Finally, create a new normal. Own the room. Take your space and your place. Interestingly, researcher Melissa J. Williams reported in Wall Street Journal she and her colleague Larissa Teidens synthesized over 71 studies and uncovered an interesting phenomenon: while women pay a price for verbal assertiveness, they didn’t pay for nonverbal assertiveness and in fact it helped where words did not.
So, play big, be yourself–no excuses and no apologies. It is past time to redefine the norm and call out gender bias when it shows its many faces. Our actions today become tomorrow’s history, and very soon a powerful woman leader’s words will be heard, simply, as a normal voice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gloria Feldt, Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead, is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. She teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and was named to Vanity Fair’s Top 200 women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers.
This post originally appeared in LinkedIn.