Too girly for work? Sheryl Sandberg uncovers the costs for women who speak up
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Too girly for work? Sheryl Sandberg uncovers the costs for women who speak up

Women are damned if they speak up, and also damned as 'too feminine' if they don't.

Few could have predicted the rise, lately, of author, speaker and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to a place of influence in the gender debate. Her seminal book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead topped American bestseller lists in 2014, exploring why so few women make it to the "C" (or "chief") suite, and its themes are alive and kicking in the American cultural landscape. So how did a wealthy capitalist become the third millennial champion of women and work?

With a plan. And, of course, with data.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg uses data-based methods to expose bias.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg uses data-based methods to expose bias.Credit:Reuters

Here's the Lean In plan for getting women promoted: we need to be bolder at work and can support each other by organising in groups. This social relationships brand of political activism prompted accusations of dilettantism by feminists of the calibre of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi, as well as a few frankly mean articles with titles like "I hate Sheryl Sandberg". As a senior executive in an industry under fire for its low hire rate of women, and as a highly salaried beneficiary of Facebook's global success, Sandberg's own backstory (her early seniority came through a connection made while a student at Harvard University Business School) can be seen as an uncomfortable fit with her egalitarian project.

Backstory is compelling, but only up to a point: for Sandberg's Lean In (first the book, and then the website, of which more, later) also restarted the stalled mainstream debate on gender and work, and brought the findings of a generation of first-rate academic research on gender (including from Harvard University, it must be conceded) to a wide audience.

The representation of women at secretary and at senior executive levels continues gracefully to rise in the Australian Public Service, and the aspiration for gender parity in senior leadership ranks across the board is now officially a subject you can defend at a dinner party without offending your host. For some of this, we have to thank Sandberg, her book, and a 2010 TED talk ("Why we have too few women leaders") that has had just under 5 million views on YouTube.

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And so: to the data. What it shows is that Gender is a Thing. It's real, even if you can't see it. Sandberg's upbeat approach is evident in her online platform (LeanIn.org) to promote women's groups, or circles, at work – and her latest salvo, an article co-written by Adam Grant published in The New York Times last year, picks the debate up again in typically readable fashion. This time, she reports that women who speak up in meetings often pay for it later in performance assessments.

Sandberg and Grant cite the work of Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll, who found that male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 per cent higher ratings of competence – while female executives who spoke more than their peers were punished by both men and women with 14 per cent lower ratings. These findings were consistent across a range of workplaces that included a healthcare company, an international bank and the floor of the American Senate.

Women fear talking "too much" for good reason. Hence, the phenomenon of shrinking female confidence. From this vantage point, a loin-girding circle of sympathetic professional peers (a Lean in circle, say) seems like a good idea.

Brescoll's research inspires a nod of recognition from women (and people of colour) for whom the unexamined authority of white men is a Thing that's alive in most workplaces. It's also consistent with the findings of research carried out by Canadian executive coach Leslie Williams that women managers are much more likely than men to get performance feedback directed at their style (either they are too "feminine", or too "masculine"). Sandberg notes that women are damned if they speak up – and Williams notes that they are also damned as "too feminine" if they don't.

Sandberg and Grant report that this effect disappears in organisations with strong female representation in senior management – gender parity, it seems, brings with it permission to speak. For workplaces still grappling with a lack of women in senior management, and hence a likely bias problem that is cruelling their aspirations to promote on the basis of merit, they propose "bias interrupts".

Bias interrupts help to turn down the emotional white noise of gender bias. Examples of bias interrupts include: a conscious policy of supporting women to speak in meetings, and introducing a "no interruption" rule to disrupt the tendency of some men to speak over women in group settings.

On this analysis, the ultimate bias interrupt is the determined pursuit of gender parity. Now that's a Thing even Faludi can lean in to.

Jacqueline Jago is a Canberra-based executive coach specialising in coaching circles for women.