Opinion: five ways to guarantee women can speak up and speak out

Techniques used by effective male leaders to ensure everyone is heard

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Over years of working in government and in academia, I have been able to study the practical ways in which the most effective male leaders value, praise, and advance women every day in their professional lives. Here are the five outstanding techniques I have seen deployed:

1 Always give a woman credit when she deserves it. In any meeting or discussion involving men and women, whenever a man makes a point ask yourself if he is repeating something a woman has already said. If so, simply say, “Yes, that’s the point that Jennifer made earlier; it’s an important contribution.” Or, “Thanks for bringing Jennifer’s point back to our attention.”

As every woman or man who already practises this habit knows, you will be astonished at how often the woman’s contribution is ignored until a man makes it.

2 Make sure all the women at the table have a chance to speak. Why hire people if you are not going to hear from them? Make it your practice to ensure that every single person around a table has had a chance to speak in every meeting.

As Susan Cain points out in her book Quiet, you will not only hear from women but also from your male employees who are more introverted. A technique I often used in the classroom was not to call on someone who had already spoken until others who had not contributed had a chance to voice their thoughts.

3 When a woman is speaking, listen in a way that communicates to her and everyone else that you actually want to hear what she has to say. You may notice that many men listen to women with a posture of barely veiled impatience, waiting only for them to finish so that another man can speak.

Try this: when a woman starts speaking, imagine that you are listening to Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, or anyone else in your pantheon who would cause you to lean forward and listen in the way people do when they think the person talking is very smart.

She will feel the difference immediately — and indeed is likely to be smarter, given the new science on the way intelligence can be evoked by the environment we are in. And, if you think you do that now, have a meeting involving men and women timed and compare the average speaking time for each woman compared to each man. You will be surprised at the disparity.

4 If a woman is interrupted, make sure either to forestall the interruption or to come back to her. You can interrupt the interrupter, by saying “Dan, give Susan a chance to finish,” or say after the interruption, “Susan, you did not have a chance to finish your point.” That practice will again emphasise that you genuinely value what Susan has to say, rather than just hearing her voice. It is of course an excellent practice when men are interrupted as well.

5 Ask a man to do the office housework. You know this. If you know a woman working in an office you have heard it a hundred times. Women get asked to do more of the niggly tasks such as scheduling meetings, taking notes, setting up a spreadsheet, etc. Next time you assign such a task, make sure you give it to a man.

Nothing on this list should surprise any man who is interested enough in closing the gender gap to have read this piece on the eve of March 8, International Women’s Day. But it is time now to move from theory to practice. Empowering women should become as routine as brushing your teeth. Not just today but every day.

The writer is president of New America and an FT contributing editor

This piece forms part of a longer FT Special Report, Women in Business, which will be published in full on March 8

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