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The perils of being a female radical

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The difficulties of speaking up and being a radical at work are well known, and indeed I’ve written numerous times about the apparent unpopularity of innovators at work.

Studies have suggested that we typically weigh up a host of factors before deciding whether or not to speak up at work.  Things like their level of job security and the depth of their personal relationships all go into the decision making process.

Something that probably doesn’t go through many of our minds is whether our gender plays a part in how our ideas will be perceived, but a couple of studies suggest that we should.

For instance, one authored by Adam Grant, shows that when a woman speaks up it can be perceived much worse than if a man does so.

“Despite its potential contributions to organizations, voice is a risky endeavor for employees, as it challenges the status quo and often threatens managers. Numerous studies have shown that many employees perceive managers as discouraging, penalizing, or punishing voice,” Grant reveals.

The study found that when employees in a healthcare company seldom received equal credit for new ideas based seemingly on nothing more than their gender.

“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,” Grant reveals. “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.”

This finding is backed up by a second study from Yale’s Victoria Brescoll, which revealed that holding a position of power is not enough to dampen this phenomenon.

“Powerful women are in fact correct in assuming that they will incur backlash as a result of talking more than others—an effect that is observed among both male and female perceivers,” she writes.

Her study found that when female leaders were described as outspoken their leadership abilities were diminished.  Interestingly, the opposite occurred for men, with quieter leaders regarded as poorer leaders.

“These results suggest that high-power women are in fact justified in their concern that they will experience backlash from being highly voluble,” Brescoll reveals. “Results showed that a female CEO who talked disproportionately longer than others in an organizational setting was rated as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who talked for an equivalent amount of time.”

All of which is far from a good situation in workplaces that are crying out for innovation.  After all, I wrote recently that those who speak up often have excellent emotional intelligence to accurately gauge the situation.

Strong emotional intelligence is a trait that women tend to have more than men, which is perhaps one of the reasons why studies have found women to be better at supporting innovation than men.

Grant himself says in a recent editorial that this culture will hopefully change as more women get into leadership positions.  It’s certainly long overdue.

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