Why are women’s voices overlooked and undervalued?

- March 7, 2023 3 MIN READ


Communication is a critical workplace skill. It is a way to contribute value, demonstrate knowledge, influence outcomes, build relationships and build your leadership brand – unless you’re a woman. Then it’s not so straightforward, writes Anneli Blundell, author of The Gender Penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work.

When men speak up, their voices are valued. When women speak up, their contributions are often challenged. This makes being seen and heard a constant battle for women in the workplace.

This dynamic means men are likely to speak up and women are likely to be shut down. Not only are women silenced in their speech and discounted in their contributions, they are accused of not ‘sounding like a leader’. When women communicate, their voices, styles and speech patterns are unconsciously compared to the male model – and often come up lacking in credibility and authority.

Why are women’s voices overlooked and undervalued? Why does society hear women differently when they speak? What can we do about it?

Women are silenced, undervalued and overlooked

In the workplace, women are routinely interrupted, talked over, ignored and overlooked. Women’s ideas are discounted, and their competency is assumed to be lacking compared to men.

Contrary to the common perception that women talk more than men in the corporate setting, the reverse is true. In mixed groups, women speak less than men. This isn’t because they don’t have anything of value to say, it’s because they can’t get a word in edgeways. Men are given more space to talk, and they take up more space when they do talk.

Adapting the play for communication

As frustrating as it is to be the one who has to change their style in order to be heard, the harsh reality is if no one gives you room to speak, you have to create it for yourself. This is what it means to adapt the play for communication.

Whether you need strategies to cut through or strategies to hold the floor, there are certain rules that will help you tackle the issue of communication at work.

The first is to speak up – often.

Speak early, speak often

The most common place to showcase your value is in a meeting. It’s where you show people who you are, what you know and how you operate – but only if you speak up.

If you’re in the meeting, be in the meeting. Speak early so people know you’re there and that you’re ready to contribute. Speak every 10 to 15 minutes so people know you are still there and that you’re still ready to contribute. And speak close to the end so people know you have been there all along and that you did contribute.

Stop interruptions

As social creatures, most women are hardwired to protect relationships. When people interrupt us, talk over us or ignore us, calling them on it can feel challenging. But call them on it, we must.

Saying, ‘let me finish, please, this is important,’ is not about bruising relationships, it is about building respect and redefining communication standards. 

Claim back credit

When people restate your ideas and fail to pass the credit onto you, it can be frustrating to say the least. The temptation to express your anger and disappointment can be strong, but it’s rarely productive as a first step. You need to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume it wasn’t intentional.

Address the behaviours in the moment and start training others to notice their behaviours. If a more direct approach is needed, you can use a stronger intervention in the moment, then address the issue offline.

Speak like you mean it

In the workplace, your communication style is your currency for creating authority and impact. It buys you the right to be heard. If your communication isn’t cutting through, and the system around you isn’t doing its part to bring you into the conversation yet, then you need a new strategy.

This isn’t about speaking like a man; it’s about speaking in a way that people can hear you better. It’s a momentary shift to get attention and be taken seriously, and it’s mostly about unconscious confidence cues.

As a society, we assume men are competent – while we make women prove their competence. This means women are asked to defend, justify, prove or explain their ideas more than men are.

Use your voice to change this. You deserve to be heard as much as anyone else. If they can’t hear you, they can’t heed you – so speak up, be heard and get into the conversation.

This is an edited extract from The Gender Penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work (BACCA House Press $24.99) by Anneli Blundell. Find out more at www.anneliblundell.com

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