An Easy Way to Back Up Co-Workers in the Boardroom

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OK, OK, ladies, now let’s get in formation.

IN AN AGE RIDDLED WITH MANSPLAINING AND MANTERRUPTIONS, women in the White House have discovered an easy way to back each other up in the boardroom. They call it “amplification,” and the technique not only got President Obama’s attention, but also changed the way he conducted meetings with staff and advisers.

Here’s how it works. When one woman makes a good point, another repeats what she said, and credits the idea to her. That’s it. That is the big secret. But, as simple as it may seem, amplification worked well enough to prompt President Obama to begin calling on female staffers more often.

Amplification is an easy trick, but it relies on women’s cohesion. It cannot be pulled off unless women work together. But, if you still view women as your competition, making the effort to amplify your co-workers’ ideas could help you shed that problematic outlook.

In her 2014 article, “The Words Every Woman Should Know,” Soraya Chemaly suggested that women practice using the phrases “Stop interrupting me,” “I just said that,” and “No explanation needed,” in order to contend with boardroom sexism. In addition to interrupting and ignoring, she adds a third method of establishing dominance in conversation: idea stealing. As Chemaly points out, “[a] woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.”

Girls are socialized to use our words and not our fists, which may be partly responsible for the gender gap in early literacy. At no point are we taught to dominate conversations. Girls’ social education focuses on politeness: deferring to others, sharing, and not making waves. Assertiveness is encouraged in boys, but stamped out in girls, who must then often face the dreaded “bossy” label.

Women continue to be stereotyped as excessive talkers, in spite of the large body of evidence that shows the opposite is true. Studies of mixed groups find that men speak more and more often than women in all settings. Members of both sexes are more likely to interrupt women than men, and men are exceedingly more likely to interrupt women than the other way around.

In her study of boardroom interruptions, Kieran Snyder found out just how uncommon it is for a woman to interrupt a man:

In fifteen hours of conversation that included 314 total interruptions, I observed a total of 13 examples of women interrupting male speakers. That is less than once per hour, in a climate where interruptions occur an average of once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds. Does anyone else think this is a big deal?

Snyder also found that “[t]here are no senior women who aren’t interrupting their male colleagues.” She concludes that women do not succeed in a male-dominated industry without learning to speak like a man, interruptions and all. This, of course, does nothing to stop the widespread mischaracterization of femininity as weak and ineffective.

What’s more, for women who are still climbing the professional ladder, achievements will not be gained by simply adopting a masculine manner. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant point out in their 2015 article, “Speaking While Female,” being a woman in business means conducting a delicate balancing act that often has no desirable outcome: “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.”

That misperception may be due to listener bias. Because we buy into the myth that women talk more than men, we tend to believe that they are monopolizing the conversation when they do speak, even when men are responsible for the vast majority of words spoken and time spent talking. You can stack this phenomenon under the heading “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

So how can you tell if you are one of those people who interrupts women and thinks they speak more than they really do? Introspection is key. When you have a knee-jerk reaction to something, take the time to stop and think: Why do I really feel this way? Don’t be afraid to think it out.

Identifying your hidden biases might take a lot of time and self-awareness, but it’s worth it in the end. There are plenty of free online tools that can help you get started, but mindful experience may show you more than a 10-minute test ever could.

I want to stress that there is no right way to conduct business as a woman living in a man’s world. Gender judo is real, and, if you feel that it is necessary to your situation, go forth and use it, especially if you are the only woman in your workplace. For women who have female co-workers, however, amplification may provide a way to navigate around the tightrope.