New research from the University of Delaware suggests that women receive less credit for speaking up in the workplace than their male counterparts.
Kyle Emich, an assistant professor of management in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, explored this topic with the University of Arizona’s Elizabeth McClean, Boston College’s Sean R. Martin and the United States Military Academy’s Todd Woodruff for an article in Academy of Management Journal.
“In sum, we find that when men speak up with ideas on how to change their team for the better they gain the respect of their teammates – since speaking up indicates knowledge of the task at hand and concern for the wellbeing of the team,” Emich said. “Then, when it comes time to replace the team’s leader, those men are more likely to be nominated to do so. Alternatively, when women speak up with ideas on how to change the team for the better, they are not given any more respect than women who do not speak up at all, and thus are not seen as viable leadership options.”
Emich said that in the case of the researchers’ first sample, involving military cadets at West Point, “This difference is immense.”
On average in 10-person teams, Emich said, men who speak up more than two-thirds of their teammates are voted to be the No. 2 candidate to take on team leadership.
“Women who speak up the same amount are voted to be the No. 8 candidate,” he said. “This effect size is bigger than any I have seen since I began studying teams in 2009.”
Further, in the team’s second study, a lab study of working adults from across the United States, Emich said, “We find that men are given more credit than women even when saying the exact same thing.”
“Of course, when I discuss this with women they are not shocked,” Emich said. “The most common reaction I get is gratitude that we finally have data to show something they have been observing for years. However, men are mostly oblivious. This is because they do not need to consider their gender in most organizational contexts, thus their unconscious biases remain just that, unconscious.”
To further explain what he means, Emich said that when most individuals imagine a leader, they are likely to expect that leader to be a man by default.
“This is the reason it is so easy for people – both men and women – to link men’s voices (speaking up) with leadership,” Emich said. “Implicitly, men are already considered leaders to a greater extent than women are. The reason I mention this is that correcting the problem will take effort and the conscious attention to biases against women in the workplace.”
So how can individuals combat this biased thinking in the workplace?
“I challenge any man reading this to go into your next meeting and see who comes up with ideas and who gets credit for them,” Emich said. “I know this was an eye-opening exercise for me – being a man who was previously unaware of the level of bias women face.
“At first, just observe,” he said. “Then, eventually, step up and give credit where credit is due.”
Giving credit where credit is due can be as simple, Emich explained, as acknowledging that who the idea came from: If a woman’s ideas have been floated around the room, you can acknowledge that by saying, “I think we all really like [name]’s idea.”
Emich also recommends that professionals consider mentoring women in the workplace.
“Finally, at the very least, understand that we all use cognitive shortcuts to get through each day,” he said. “We simply don’t have the energy or ability to fully consider everything we run into. For example, think of what you had for breakfast. How did you decide? You probably just grabbed the closest thing to you, or followed a pattern of what you always eat.
“Well, we have patterns and shortcuts involving people too, and one of them is more easily considering men leaders even when women exhibit the exact same behaviors,” Emich said. “And this shortcut has very real negative consequences for women and workplaces alike.”
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