Companies & Industries

Women Are Afraid to Speak Up? Really?


A trio of Harvard bloggers say it's a myth that women are more reticent than their male counterparts in the workplace

Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 1, 2010 9:50 AM

Editors' note: This is the third in a series of posts examining myths about why employees don't speak up, based on the June HBR article, "Debunking Four Myths About Employee Silence."

In our previous posts here and here, we tackled myths related to 1) whether employees withhold ideas; 2) why employees hold back; and 3) the types of issues employees speak up about, and don't.

This post is about who speaks up and who withholds input. We look at three groups of employees: higher-paid, more senior staff; expert employees; and women—and we explode the myth that non-professional employees and women are more reticent than others.

1) Position and income: It's scarcely surprising to find out why low-level employees are often afraid to speak up—the leaders they must approach and who may react negatively (or not at all) are also the ones who have control over their jobs and careers. As one marketing manager explained, "It's hard to speak your mind because you're afraid—fear of losing your job and then trying to find another one." But, what about those who are leaders themselves? Shouldn't the ones with power feel freer to speak up honestly about problems in the organization?

According to our research, they don't. In the Cornell National Social Survey (CNSS), we found that people making more than $150,000 in annual household income were just as likely as those making $20,000 to $40,000 to hold back their input in the workplace because of fear of consequences or a perception that speaking up would be futile. In the words of the Director of Global Finance of a Fortune 100 multinational, "People don't go to management with the options, because they are afraid—they try to second guess what management wants instead of what management really needs to know, and so the problems build up." Said a senior analyst, "The trouble here is that people are so vested and well paid, it's not worth the risk [of speaking]. As people get senior like myself—late 40s, 25 years longevity—the options, the pension, everything is hanging on [not causing trouble]." People at more senior levels experience fear and futility because they still have bosses, and in many cases they have even more to lose.

In this way, high-level positions and attractive compensation packages may give rise to the unintended consequence of encouraging a self-protective impulse rather than greater willingness to contribute to long-term, collective success via speaking up. In short, just because someone has a lot of power and the perks that accompany it, don't assume they'll be braver, more forthright, and more willing to give you the straight dope or new ideas that challenge the status quo. This may also help explain why it is so frustrating for lower-level employees to enact some change; they often have access only to mid-level executives who share their fears and sense of futility about speaking up.

2) Education and expertise: If position within the firm doesn't inoculate one from the fears of speaking up, perhaps qualifications do. After all, experts know more about their specialty areas than others (including senior managers), by definition. So, managers should have convinced these expert employees that they'll pay attention and treat them well when they offer their insights, right? In our CNSS data, we found that people with post-secondary degrees (college graduates or higher) were just as likely to withhold their input as those without any degrees beyond high school. Ironically, this means that managers are sometimes not getting valuable input even from the people they themselves would acknowledge are best-positioned to give it. Even experts can face the same intense scrutiny and fear of derisive pushback from their managers as others; they must be overly prepared if they decide to voice their ideas. As one employee noted, "We present 20 pages but have 160 as back-up because the ultimate fear is that they'll ask a question and you can't answer. You have to be able to answer everything. To me, that's the fear factor." Input from experts may actually be seen as more threatening to managers and therefore invite more scrutiny and reprisals for speaking the truth precisely because experts have more credibility to challenge various aspects of a manager's projects.

3) Gender: There has been plenty of research arguing that women are less assertive and less willing to advocate a challenging position than men. For instance, women are far less likely to negotiate. Perhaps this reluctance is justified, as women are often punished for engaging in more forceful behaviors. For these reasons, one might expect that women should also withhold their improvement-oriented ideas more often. But, our CNSS data show that men and women are equally likely to withhold input from their managers.

So, how do we square our results with the other research? One way is to think about whether what we found masks some more nuanced patterns. For instance, maybe women withhold their input more when speaking up to males. With men occupying most executive positions, this would make it most difficult for women to speak up to the most senior managers but easier if their input is directed to those in mid-level managerial positions, which are more likely to be occupied by other women. Another possibility is that women hold back about certain issues. Research by a colleague from the University of Texas, Emily Amanatullah, shows that women find it more difficult than men to negotiate for themselves, yet they are more comfortable and more effective negotiating on behalf of others. Perhaps women speak up less about issues related to their own tasks, but are more likely to speak up on behalf of their colleagues. One other possibility is that women hold back just as often as men, but receive less credit for the ideas they actually propose. Thus, their assertiveness is not acknowledged and recognized as their colleagues share the success of their ideas.

In sum, there are no statistical differences in the CNSS data between those of different income level, education level, or gender in the likelihood of holding back due to fear or a sense of futility. But this may not mean that strategies to encourage speaking up are or should be the same for all types of people. Although the rates of holding back are the same, the underlying reasons for these feelings of fear and futility may differ for each type of employee.

What strategies have you used to tailor your encouragement to speak up depending on whom you're managing? Or do you think all strategies work equally well regardless of the recipient? Again, we invite you to please speak up by posting a response to share your ideas with us and other readers.


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