Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Finding Your Voice

I'm going to get a little political in the post, which I don't normally do.  But, I had some interesting conversations over the last few days that made me want to speak up.  One friend has recently left her company in large part because she felt like her voice wasn't being heard.  We spoke a lot about how as professional women it's a constant struggle to just be heard.  It isn't enough to earn a seat at the table.  You have to have a voice once you get there.  Another friend who just welcomed a new baby is frustrated by the feminization of his desire to have balance with his work and family. (I know feminization is not a real word - but I'm using it anyway!)  We spoke about how the professional world pretends to be gender neutral but it's not really.

It was slightly discouraging to hear my first friend's frustration, given that she's spent over thirty years in the industry and has a lot of value to add. It's sad that in 2014, this is still a problem.  Her experience and track record got her a seat at the table. That's what we're all told we need to do.  It's a battle cry of the modern professional woman. Get at the table and you'll be taken seriously, you'll be able to make an impact!  If only this were true.

The glass ceiling still exists even in companies with female executives.  It's just more nuanced now.  More and more women are making it to senior level management positions in name only.  Once there, they become there as the 'doers' and 'cheerleaders'. The men are still making all of the decisions with very little input from the women in the room. Often women are steamrolled by more aggressive communication styles so their voice in the conversation is lost. Once the decisions are made the women are given marching orders. They lead their troops in the direction that the guys in charge tell them to, often frustrated over the fact that given the chance they would do differently.

I've felt this myself in several positions and continue to witness it today with the majority of my female colleagues.  We're in the room, at the table, but no one is listening.  We're not given the opportunity to speak up or when we do we are shouted over or down.  If we're too aggressive we're labeled as hard to work with and discounted.  If we're too nice or political we're labeled as push overs, passive aggressive or manipulative and discounted. And many men who lend their voice to the women or join their cause are called out for being 'soft' and discounted.  I know of at least two men in senior executive positions who see this happening, are extremely frustrated by it, but don't know what to do to change it - so they do nothing.

I've witnessed men come in and say the exact thing that a woman has been shouting for weeks - sometimes using the exact same words.  Somehow the message is better received the second time around.  I'm not sure why.  I know the male members of these management teams.  None of them belong on the set of Mad Men.  They all have strong wives, daughters and other women in their lives that they respect.  But they don't hear our voices - even when we're "at the table".  Is there a more effective way to communicate?  How do we teach it to women? Is there additional training we can give executives to make them aware of the unintentional bias?  How do we raise awareness without creating animosity?

From an in house point of view, this frustrates me on two levels. First, as a professional woman, I'm constantly weighing my interactions with my male colleagues.  I often work twice as hard as I should have to just to have my voice heard.  And I just as often don't get ignored.  Second, as the lawyer protecting the company, this behavior is a law suit waiting to happen.  How can I protect the company against claims rising out of this frustration?  My friend resigned from her job and just moved on.  But she could have filed a claim, and how would her company defend against it?  I don't have the answers.  But I'm open to suggestions!