On 'speaking while female'

Sybil Dunlop
The Daily Record Newswire

I occasionally find myself at a conference, meeting, or event where I am the only woman. It's litigation. It happens. In these circumstances, I can become hyper-aware of how much space I take up in the conversation. I worry if I talk too much (am I a bossy know-it-all? A showboat?). I worry if I talk too little (am I talking too little because I am the only woman? Am I holding back?). A recent New York Times article confirms that whatever I am, I am not crazy.

In "Speaking While Female," Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, highlight the latest research regarding women's participation at work. The most disheartening statistic? Male executives who speak more often than their peers are rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. Female executives who speak more are hit with 14 percent lower ratings, by both women and men. Sadly, these findings are confirmed in multiple arenas. Grant discusses similar patterns he uncovered while advising an international bank:

"When male employees contributed ideas that brought in new revenue, they got significantly higher performance evaluations. But female employees who spoke up with equally valuable ideas did not improve their managers' perception of their performance. Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness."

Even the most powerful women are not immune. The article cites a study demonstrating that "male senators with more power (as measured by tenure, leadership positions and track record of legislation passed)" speak "more on the Senate floor than their junior colleagues. But for female senators, power [is] not linked to significantly more speaking time." As someone who can - on occasion - talk too much, I find all this research pretty depressing.

The article, however, does identify potential solutions, challenging businesses to find creative ways to "interrupt" gender bias. Orchestras, for example, began using blind auditions in the 1970s and '80s (and as a result women have moved from 5 percent of all players to 25 percent). Other employers have instituted "no-interruption rules," when anyone - male or female - is making a pitch.

I experienced the benefits of a "no-interruption" system firsthand as a member of my college debate team. At a debate tournament, each debater takes the floor for a seven-minute presentation. You lose points if you exceed your time limit. You look lame if you can't fill your time. Knowing that I was expected to fill my time, and simultaneously serve as a zealous advocate for my position, assuaged my concerns about talking too much or too little. Debate provided a forum in which I was expected to speak loudly. I loved it.

Just like college debate, our profession's formal litigation procedures present great opportunities to "interrupt" gender bias. Everyone's brief has the same page limit, and we all must stop talking when the appellate clock turns red. Litigation, however, is more than just brief writing and timed oral arguments. It's in the gray areas that I can lose my way. What to do when a judge requests a 10 minute presentation and my opponent speaks for 45 minutes? Or when I realize I'm not speaking as much as male peers at a meeting?

My gut knows the answers to both of these questions, of course. If a judge requests a 10-minute presentation, I believe that everyone should comply. And, I try not to delay a meeting unless I have something productive or unique to add - I don't want to speak at a meeting just to hear the sound of my own voice (although I am surely sometimes guilty of this crime).

These choices, however, lead me to wonder whether my male doppelganger would talk more. Maybe he would. But that doesn't mean that piping up more frequently is objectively the right thing to do in these (and many other) situations. I don't want to silence myself out of a fear that I am speaking too much. But I also don't want to speak just so that I can say I had as much air time as the guys at the last bar event. My ideal self could successfully ignore concerns about gender parity and perception and speak up whenever she had something to say.

Until I achieve this Zen state, Sandberg and Grant propose one additional "solution." In an employment situation where women made up 74 percent of supervisors and 84 percent of the front-line employees, women were more likely to be heard than men. In other words, I can stop worrying about how much I'm talking if we can get more women to join the conversation.

Published: Mon, Mar 02, 2015