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Men (Not Women) Get Credit for Speaking Up

Vivia Chen

March 21, 2018

Confident-woman-speaking-1Can you believe it's been over five years since Sheryl Sandberg gave her seminal Lean-In speech on TedTalk?

By now, I'm sure all you ladies in the legal profession are doing what Sandberg advocated: You're sitting at the table and making your voice heard. And you are not letting your male colleagues drown you out. How else will you be perceived as partner-material?

It turns out you can lean-in until you topple over, but you still won't get credit. 

According to two studies by business faculty at Boston College, University of Arizona, U.S. Military Academy at West Point and University of Delaware, gender matters when it comes to who gets brownie points for speaking up.

In Harvard Business Review, assistant management professor Sean Martin of Boston College, one of the studies' authors, writes that the benefits (respect, esteem and leadership potential) of speaking up "happened only for some people and only when they spoke up in certain ways." (The studies will be published in an upcoming issue of Academy of Management Journal.)

Generally, the studies find that voicing a rah-rah attitude rather than being negative is key if you want to land in a leadership position. "Speaking up with promotive voice (providing ideas for improving the group) was significantly related to gaining status among one’s peers and emerging as a leader," reports HBR. On the other hand, those who speak with "prohibitive voice (pointing out problems or issues that may be harming the team and should be stopped) was not."

That benefit doesn't apply to women, however. Though the studies looked at two very different groups—cadets at West Point and workers in a wide range of industries—the gender effect is the same:

Men who spoke up with ideas were seen as having higher status and were more likely to emerge as leaders. Women did not receive any benefits in status or leader emergence from speaking up, regardless of whether they did so promotively or prohibitively.

"Women are basically wasting their time," says Elizabeth McClean, one of the studies' authors and an assistant professor of management at University of Arizona. Citing statistics that virtually every female lawyer knows—that women make up more than half of the nation's law students yet only 18 percent or so of equity partners at major firms—McClean says, "women get no benefits for speaking up and engaging in change-oriented behavior." She adds, "women have done about as much as they can."

The onus should be on organizations, rather than women. "It is up to the top of the organizations to make sure that they have programs to support women," says McClean. "They need to ensure that they are evaluating women and minorities fairly."

One proactive measure is for managers "to amplify women’s ideas by intentionally giving extra attention to their suggestions," suggests the HBR article. Another is to "document ideas in real time," like writing them down so that women get credit and recognition. Finally, the article advocates that managers "call on women in meetings to hear their input, or to find less formal contexts to ask for women’s improvement-oriented suggestions."

All fine ideas, though it takes management buy-in that women's voices are not adequately heard. And I'm skeptical whether the issue is a priority in most businesses.

Which brings me back to Lean-In, and how we women are essentially back to where we started.

Not to be a total downer, I did detect one "positive" in the HBR report. I was pleasantly surprised that women didn't get penalized for bringing up bad news. As the HBR piece points out, "neither men nor women who spoke up about problems suffered a loss of status or had a lower likelihood of emerging as a leader (though they weren’t helped by speaking up, either)." 

The way I see it, women should point out all the problems and shortcomings of the firm or organizations where they work. Hell, if we won't get promoted, we might as well be royal pains. 

 

vchen@alm.com 

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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