At the start of each sales course at the Wharton School, when I asked students for their personal objectives, a few women, invariably not native to the United States, consistently requested that I help them “speak up”.

But I also noticed during each class, where high-achieving women made up half of the class, it was the men who participated the most.  And in each class, I made a point to encourage women to participate, which seemed to get them more involved. I realize now I should have done more.

Study after study shows that women hold back because they don’t want to be perceived as aggressive, and they expect to be interrupted or shut down.  New research by Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll supported this in a recent study comparing patterns by rank and gender. Her study found that male executives with more power spoke more than their junior male associates.  But in the case of women, women with more power did not get more speaking time than their juniors. Professor Brescoll looked deeper into these findings with additional studies in which male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. But for female executives who spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished the women with 14 percent lower ratings.  These data showed that women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid!

The taboo surrounding female expression even extends to the entertainment industry, generally considered to be more progressive than others.  While producing the hit TV series “The Shield,” Glen Mazzara noticed that two young female writers were quiet during story meetings. He pulled them aside and encouraged them to speak up more.  They told him if they spoke they would be interrupted or their idea would be put down or trumped.  The conclusion was that experience is not unusual.

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, University of Pennsylvania professor, and a HB top rated international thinker, says that “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.” He points out that data also shows women’s suggestions are less likely to be acted on compared with the same suggestions by men.

You may be shaking your heads now. After all it is 2015!  This is painful to hear, and even harder for most of us to believe…  Yes there are many professional women not in this “interrupted” group.   But research confirms that many women are holding themselves back in an effort to get ahead.

Data from a recent McKinsey study of 60 corporations shows that the percentage and number of women drop off dramatically in higher ranks of organizations. This seems to indicate the “holding back” strategy is not working.

Adam Grant points to research that shows that women excel at leadership when given the chance.  Wooley, Malone, and Chabris saw this in two studies with Pentland and Hashmi of M.I.T.. They sought to define the characteristics that distinguished smart teams from the rest and were surprised that they did not find things like I.Q., being extroverted, or being more motived.  They found that smart teams were distinguished by three characteristics:

  • first—members contributed equally
  • second—members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only eyes visible
  • third—teams with more women outperformed teams with more men, or equal numbers, and this was tied to mind reading (emotional reading skills).

With such data, I cannot help but think about how this impacts women in sales in their own organizations and even with their customers. Or even with the treatment of female customers.  The problem is that silencing not only hurts the women involved, but also their organizations that lose the benefit of their ideas.

All of this data points to need to recognize and do something about gender bias in the workplace. In thinking about women in sales – many of whom are the top producers – we must ask to what extent are they holding back consciously or unconsciously internally for additional success, because they feel their ideas will be hijacked, their contributions will be shut down, or they will be interrupted or worse seen as too aggressive, which will hurt their careers?

So what can we do to remove any bias that exists?  Certainly when more women fill senior positions, the more they will be heard.  Leaders can take steps to encourage women to speak up. Adam Brant suggest things such as ideas competitions, where ideas are submitted anonymously to eliminate gender bias.  During a presidential news conference, when eight women reporters were called on at the exclusion of any men, it was so unusual that it made national news.  Similarly, on an individual level, sales managers can make a point in meetings to encourage women to contribute and they can facilitate respectful listening by not tolerating interruptions.

But I think the solution exists within women themselves to bravely silence the voice that is silencing them.  Preparation is key. The mantra should be  “Speak up.”

I have found that by doing things such as waiting and listening first to others in a group, a person sets a foundation for her or his ideas to be heard. Confidence in delivery is as important as the thought itself. For example, avoid diminishing words such as “just”, qualifying expressions like “You probably won’t agree,” or body language with excessive nodding and tilted head. Not accepting being interrupted (with a comment like  “May I continue?” which is both polite and grammatically correct) and reclaiming an idea when someone runs with it (by saying, “So glad you agree…”) are not aggressive but are assertive.

Although I have developed and delivered programs for companies to empower women, and also worked with companies to help them attract and keep women, in my writings I have pretty much shied away from gender issues.  As a woman in business, I have experienced both the detractions and advantages of my gender.  I have never wanted to be a part of pitting genders against each other, and that surely is not the intent here.

Rather, my call to action is for women and men to first become more aware of gender bias and then to take steps to fix it.  When gender doesn’t hold anyone back, we all benefit.