HPE Aruba Networking Blogs

Women, speak up! How effective communication can change the workplace culture

By Sylvia Hooks, VP, Edge to Cloud Integrated Marketing, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

This fall, women are continuing to make their mark in unexpected places. Claudia Goldin is a Harvard professor who recently earned the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Since inception in 1969, this prize has only been awarded to a woman twice, and Dr. Goldin is the first female solo winner.

Dr. Goldin won the prize based on her in-depth research on how women have progressed in the workforce over the past 200 years. Her studies provide a close-up look into a hotbed of issues, including pay inequity, changes for women in the job market, and implications for the future labor force.

Her research unearthed thousands of discussion points on gender inequality in the workplace, including one I’m especially passionate about—the pay gap. Dr. Goldin notes how the process of closing the wage gap has been uneven throughout history, and women in the US still make a little over 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.

She found that the difference in pay starts to widen a year or two after a woman has her first baby. To explain why, Dr. Goldin said in a New York Times interview that “we will not have gender equality until we also have couple equity.” She adds that despite progressive change in family structures, women are traditionally tied back to doing more work in the home (true for me and many peers), preventing them from advancing as quickly as their male counterparts.

Taking steps for equality

Women in workplaces everywhere—including in tech—have felt the impacts of inequality that Dr. Goldin describes. But instead of waiting for the world to change, we need to take our own steps forward. A good starting point is changing our workplace communication habits. We can change this for ourselves!

According to author Deborah Tannen of the best-selling book Talking from 9 to 5, men and women communicate very differently in the workplace. Women speak to each other in a way that maximizes harmony and builds connection but downplays authority. Men tend to use language that involves opposition, even putting each other down to build their own status. Tannen found that communication styles typically associated with men are more likely to impress job interviewers, as well as those making decisions about promotions.

Lights + camera = more action

Tannen also states that communications styles in the workplace can determine three very important things: who gets heard, who gets ahead, and what gets done. The corporate meeting room, which now includes videoconferences, is the main event to getting things done, so let’s look at the stark differences in how men and women interact.

A Harris Poll found that 39 percent of women turn off video during Zoom calls, but just 25 percent of men turn off video. The poll also reveals that women are more likely than men to mute themselves (in addition to disabling the video) while multi-tasking during the call.

Being visible is the key to successfully being heard. Don’t let your presence be diminished. If your camera is off, you are missing a huge part of communication—body language, which plays a significant role in expressing ideas and can be as important as the words we say, according to psychology experts.

The remedy for this seems easy. As Dr. Allison Weidhaas, associate professor at Rider University so succinctly advises, “Be visible during virtual meetings, ladies! People need to see and hear you. It's easier to relate to and respect the person we can see and hear. And we need women's voices in corporate America. So, switch on cameras and microphones.” This is obviously true for the corporate world in general (not just corporate America).

Ignore the noise

And once you have the floor in the room, take charge. Too many women are still afraid of being perceived as too dominant if they speak up in meetings. According to research from Cornell University, people expect men in meetings to be assertive and ambitious, but women to be caring and other-oriented.

The researchers add that a man who talks often is perceived as a confident expert, but a woman who speaks up is perceived as aggressive or pushy. And women often think that talking too much will even result in a backlash of negative consequences to their career.

But ignore all that!

I find that the truth is that if I don’t speak up loudly and often, no one will even remember I was there – let alone attribute good ideas to me.

Use your power for good

So where does change begin? With an awareness of gender communication differences, women can help each other move forward, and men can be allies. Here’s my shortlist of where all of us, but especially leaders, can start to make a difference. (PS I really do all of these!)

  • Call on women (or anyone) who are quiet in meetings. A shot of encouragement can go a long way in helping someone—especially the bashful—overcome their fear of speaking up.
  • Round table. Warn the whole team ahead that you will be going around the table to collect feedback or ideas, so nobody is singled out or left out.
  • Be visible in every meeting. Always turn on your mic and camera on video calls.
  • Be heard. Challenge yourself to make at least one comment or question per meeting! Jump in with ideas, even if you feel slightly uncomfortable. Or even if you are feeling out-ranked in a meeting. Or twice. Or maybe even three times!
  • Amplify your peers. Be an ally, promoting your colleagues’ ideas in discussions and giving them credit for their contributions. That support will circle back. It also helps overcome unconscious bias that causes us to misattribute ideas to men.
  • Stand up for other women. Take a deliberate chance on your female over achievers and promote them early. Odds are, they will rise to the occasion.

And a final callout to help prevent silent misconduct...Why are we embarrassed to say what happened when someone misbehaves? Stop! We condone what we don’t confront. So:

  • Name names. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth and point out improper behavior.

Have other ideas? I’d love to hear what works for you – or help you with dilemmas you face. I’m just a DM away.