Let’s start acknowledging what we know, and then sharing it.
I was recently coaching a software engineer on an upcoming presentation. She wanted to respond gracefully if an audience member asked about a topic she didn’t feel qualified to address. “I just don’t know enough about the project to talk about it.”
Curious, I asked her how much she did know about the topic. “Only about 80%,” she said. As soon as she heard herself say it aloud, she smiled at me. Because what that statement really meant was, “I know a lot about that topic.” But like many women I work with, she didn’t feel “qualified” to discuss it unless she knew 110% of the topic, and also maybe had a Ph.D. in it too. Women need to feel like a walking Wikipedia to open their mouths. Men will be an expert after glancing at a pamphlet in the subject.
This hesitance to speak is a rational response to a world that does ignore or under value women’s opinions and criticize them more harshly than men’s. (The research is here and here. ) And of course, we now have a vocabulary to describe the ways women’s voices are silenced: you know “mansplaining,” but now there’s also “manterrupting,” and “bropropriating,” in which a man takes credit for a woman’s idea. The problem is real, and women aren’t crazy to zip their lips.
But until women rule the universe, or at least are half of all CEOs and Senators, we have to figure out a strategy. And we must stop internalizing social messages about our value and our expertise. So how do we do that? Two great books on this topic are Playing Big by Tara Mohr and Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. And here’s some tips to get you started today.
Women need to feel like a walking Wikipedia to open their mouths. Men will be an expert after glancing at a pamphlet in the subject.
1. Start with noticing what you tell yourself when you decide not to share an opinion, a perspective. Become an observer (without judging) of your own thought patterns, especially when you are at meetings or in other situations where you are hesitant to speak. Normally these nasty little messages (“I better not talk about this issue - I don’t want to look foolish.”) get transmitted at lightening speed so you barely notice them. But if you’re watching for them, you’ll hear them. Try to keep track of them for a few days. You will learn a LOT!
2. Next, start noticing the kind of contributions other people make, especially men. At meetings, take out your invisible magnifying glass to find out if their contributions are always brilliant, or just opinions dressed up to sound authoritative. What you are going to notice are a lot of people saying exactly what you were thinking because, in all likelihood, your perspective and observations are just as valuable as theirs, and often more.
3.Okay, you’re done noticing; now try a small step. Decide that you are going to speak up once or twice this week in a meeting. One thing that may help you is to prepare some “framers,” introductory phrases that can give you a structure that feels comfortable. Some examples are: “I believe we should consider...” “Why don’t we…” “There are three reasons we need to…,” “From my perspective… .” What you want to avoid however, is the “apology intro: “This may be a dumb idea…” “You all may have thought of this already, but …” or even, “I’m sorry, but I think we should…”
Women always question if they are qualified,” she said, “but look at all these clowns around us.”
And finally, here’s something to remember when you get down about the challenges of speaking up. In a recent article in the New York Times about the way men with no experience are dominating the cryptocurrency field, early crypto investor Arianna Simpson “said the surge of interest in virtual currencies from male novices should remind women that it did not take expertise or a Ph.D. to thrive in the system. Women always question if they are qualified,” she said, “but look at all these clowns around us.” Remember those “clowns” the next time you think knowing 80% is not enough. It is.
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