Are we listening to women in the workplace?

Tom Spencer
5 min readMar 6, 2020

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Each month at corporate induction, I run a short session on listening. We reflect on three different types of listening — Internal, focused and 360 degree listening. This always seems to go down well with new staff as they reflect on how well they are listening (or not!) at work and in their own lives. One of the key reflections is always on how phones and laptops get in the way of us really listening to each other in meetings and other work settings.

These sessions are also a helpful nudge for me, a reminder that listening takes work and is not something you are just good or bad at. As we support staff in Camden to listen to each other more effectively, it is important to reflect on who does the talking. It is hard to listen to people if they do not have the space to speak.

There is a lot of work happening in Camden to try and overcome the historical imbalance of voices that are heard and acted upon. Whether this is through relational activism, the Inclusive Innovation Network or Citizen’s Assemblies, we are consciously helping people use the power they have to make change. We are being very deliberate in how we listen and engage people in tackling the challenges we face and reinventing how we deliver service. We know that if we can truly listen and tune in to the needs of our residents we can change and improve as an organisation.

We have also reflected on how we can better support and engage groups and individuals that have not always felt a sense of belonging in Camden. This has been especially true for our work on Conscious Inclusion — including our sponsoring and mentoring programme and our work on the Stonewall equality index. We are not doing this work because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, it is much more than that. If we are to tackle the most complex and challenging problems, we need a greater diversity of ideas to increase, our ‘collective intelligence’ (Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas).

For International Women’s Day 2020 the theme is ‘an equal world is an enabled world.’ When it comes to women being ‘equal’ in Camden we, by many of the key measures, are doing well. We have women in the most senior roles in the organisation and the gender pay gap in Camden slightly favours women. Despite these positive indicators, we need to continue to challenge ourselves and reflect on whether we are really listening to women when it matters.

We also need to ensure that equality for women is not a problem for women alone to resolve - men have a key role to play as allies to our female colleagues.

Evidence around how well we listen in the workplace suggests that men (and women) still carry biases and assumptions that prevent women’s ideas from being heard and acted upon. Here are a few areas, based on some of the research available, that I am going to reflect on and think about how I can do better.

Who talks the most?

A common bias we need to overcome is the idea that women talk more than men do. This is not true and many studies find that men actually speak more than women. What I found most interesting is that even though men might be speaking more than women, both men and women overestimate the amount women spoke in group discussions. (Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk Anne Cutler Donia R. Scott 1990).

This article — The Truth About How Much Women Talk — and Whether Men Listen by Deborah Tannen — draws on numerous myth busting studies that show that men “talk far more than women in what might be called public speaking — formal business contexts like meetings.” Tannen believes that one reason women might speak less at meeting is that “they don’t want to come across as talking too much. It’s a verbal analogue to taking up physical space.”

Reflection: In your next meeting consider who is doing most of the talking and maybe talk a bit less (especially if you are a man!) Consider whether this is about gender, power dynamics or other forms of discrimination. How can we make meetings more inclusive?

Who interrupts who?

It might not come as a massive surprise that men are more likely to interrupt women than other men. What was a surprise — at least to me — was that women are also more likely to interrupt women than men.

One study set up a series of 1-to-1, three-minute conversations and recorded the language used and the interruptions that took place (Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language Adrienne B. Hancock, Benjamin A. Rubin 2014). The study found that “women, on average, interrupted men just once, but interrupted other women 2.8 times. Men interrupted their male conversation partner twice, on average, and interrupted the woman 2.6 times.”

Reflection: Is this also true in your workplace? Who is interrupting who? Are the interruptions lifting people up or arguing against their thoughts/ideas?

Whose ideas are praised?

The scenario is potentially familiar and one I have heard from colleagues in the past. The times when an idea only becomes a ‘good’ idea when a man says it, even if a woman said the exact same thing just moments before.

Women in the Obama administration were under-represented at meetings and grew tired of being ignored when they were in the room, so they adopted a new strategy:

“female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

(White house women are now in the room where it happens, Juliet Eilprin)

This took conscious effort to ensure the voices of women were heard. We should be all be trying to amplify voices in meetings and other settings that help us to have more and better ideas. By not listening, we are missing out on potential solutions and reducing the likelihood that people will speak up in the future.

In this example it was women supporting women but it should not be up to just women (or other groups who suffer discrimination) to tackle these issues on their own, everyone needs to work harder to listen to each other and overcome the structural reasons for why some people are listened to more than others.

Reflection: Who gets the credit for good ideas? Can you provide some ‘amplification’ to support the ideas of people who might not normally be heard?

I’m aware that I’m consciously incompetent when it comes to talking less and listening more — anyone who has been in meetings with me will probably know this — but I’m committed to trying.

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Tom Spencer

Helping public sector and community organisations deliver great outcomes for the people they serve