Keep your hand up!

08/03/2023 Keep your hand up!

Meital Ben-Tovim

Do most women feel confident about taking their place at the table and having their say? If not, why not?  What can we, as women, do about it?

Last week, I took Mili, my goddaughter, to a chocolate workshop. Mili is brave, feisty, social, and super smart. We sat by a big work table, just the two of us. It was a private class.

“Do you know what chocolate is made of?” the instructor asked, holding up a cacao fruit.
Silence. Mili looked at me, almost terrified. 

“Why don’t you take a guess?” asked the instructor.

Nothing.  Mili was afraid to get it wrong. She might try and fail, so she decided the safe choice was to keep quiet — to not even try.

It dawned on me that this seemingly insignificant interaction is something that I have seen all too many times with women I work with. They don’t speak up, they are afraid to say something wrong, or they are afraid their words or intentions may be misconstrued.

In the workplace, an assertive, outspoken man is considered strong, charismatic and successful while the same behavior displayed by women might be labeled as pushy, aggressive, or opinionated.  So women find themselves stifled. They opt for the safe choice. But is it really the safe choice? And what price do we pay for that choice?

When I was a young executive, I often found myself in rooms full of older, more experienced businessmen. As I walked into these rooms, I felt the weight of social constraints and saw the judgemental  looks. It made me feel small and afraid. 

Beyond the gender biases and differences that are built into the systems we work and live in, women also have an extremely loud inner voice that claims to protect them but actually hinders them and holds them back.

Have you ever sat in a meeting and didn’t speak up? Have you thrown yourself into your work and banked on people noticing? Have you avoided stating your opinion because you were concerned how it would be received?

You are not alone.

In a study conducted by Professor Judd Kessler of the Wharton Business School, it was found that men rated their performance 33% higher than equally performing women. There are multiple studies showing the same results. Women rate themselves and their achievements lower than their male peers even when they outperform men.
Not only that, in Professor’s Kessler’s study, men were more likely to self-promote themselves than women. Self-promotion helps us achieve a raise and increases our chances of getting hired and being considered for a promotion.

Covering Professor’s Kessler’s work, the Harvard Business Review wrote “Prior work investigating self-promotion has pointed to the potential for gender differences in backlash — in which those who self-promote “too much” are punished. If women are punished for excessive self-promotion more than men, this could lead women — more than men — to internalize the risks of describing their performance too favorably”.

Put plainly, we as women are afraid to state our value, or take credit or ownership of our successes. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization, although recent research continues to support these findings.

The sources of these gaps can be evolutionary, culturally based, or socially imposed, but it really doesn’t make a difference. It’s  important to know that there is a gap, that what we as women are feeling and experiencing is exacerbated by greater forces AND that we can do something about it. 

So don’t believe everything you think, the source might be biased.

Instead, take the opportunity to practice speaking up, sharing, and making yourself seen by exercising these two simple communication tools.

  1. Take an active role & say something
    If you are in a meeting and you say nothing, people might misinterpret that as you have nothing to say. They might think you don’t understand, care, or have not been listening. When you don’t speak up, you add no value. When we say nothing, we create a void and  let other people assume and decide for us. 

You don’t need to speak and take over the mic just for the sake of speaking, but be heard, participate by stating your agreement, asking a thoughtful question, or offering help. Be present and take part in the discussion. 

You don’t need to toot your own horn, but you do need to play in the band.

  1. Pause for the cause
    When providing our feedback or a different point of view, we can come across as over-verbose especially when there is a conflict or a tense situation. When we over-explain after we’ve already made our point, it comes across as less confident and starts to sound like an apology. 

Apologizing for our opinions or thoughts may invite an aggressive response back. Be brief. Be concise and then, stop!  Short clear messages have greater impact. .

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, former Facebook COO, tells a story about a lecture she once gave on gender differences. It was the end of the lecture, and she was in the midst of the QA session that she had to close. 

“Last question”, she announced. 

At the end of the session a woman walked up to her and told her that she wanted to thank her for teaching her something valuable.

“What was it?” Sheryl asked, happy about the impact she had made with her content.
“You taught me to keep my hand up,” said the woman curiously.

She explained to Sheryl that when the last question was announced, she lowered her hand.

As there were still many hands in the air, Sheryl took more questions from the audience.
It was only the men that kept their hands up.

“You taught me to keep my hand up”, she said.

And that’s an important lesson.

So, remind yourself that your voice matters, you have something to contribute, and you have value to give.

And keep your hand up!

Meital Ben Tovim
Senior Consultant & Trainer

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