Holly Richardson: Having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Christine Watkins - R, Price, speaks at the panel discussion: Tales from the Trail at the Real Women Run training in campaign management, fundraising and research for political campaigns, Saturday, January 13, 2018.

“After years spent analyzing lab and real-life settings to determine what it takes for a woman to really be heard — to truly be perceived as competent and influential — these professors have found the same truth: for women, having a seat at the table does not mean having a voice.”

Those findings are summarized in an article published in BYU magazine this week. The professors who did the research are political science professors, Jessica Preece, Chris Karpowitz and economics professor Olga Stoddard. This most recent research was looking at women in a top collegiate accounting program, and builds on previous research across a number of fields: business, academia, politics, sports, church, nonprofit spaces and, yes, even the home.

The article’s findings clearly resonate. Stoddard tweeted this week that “This project has been one of my favorites, partly because every time I have presented it, pretty much every woman in the room is non-stop nodding.”

What they found was similar to previous findings: Women in mixed-gender groups were systematically seen as less authoritative and less influential, they spoke less often and when they did speak up, they were interrupted more and what they had to say was taken less seriously. Having a single woman in a group with four men showed the biggest disparities.

Additional research has shown us that if a company adds a single woman to their interview pool, for “diversity’s sake,” there is statistically no chance that she will be hired. Zero. Think about what that means when there is only one woman on a legislative committee. Or a board. Or a ballot.

“It’s not women who are broken,” Preece said. “It’s society that’s broken,” a society that has been socialized to “discount female expertise and perspectives” and to hold women to different standards. As one example, think of razor-sharp double bind that says that women cannot be both competent and likeable. They must be one or the other. The bind, of course, is that they must be both.

One of the more poignant parts of the BYU article for me was this: These systemic problems cannot be overcome by being excellent. No matter how hard women work, no matter how excellent their skills, no matter how much they may wish to have gender taken out of the equation, “the existence of gender bias in organizational policies and practices may suggest that they have no power to determine their own success,” said a 2013 Harvard Business Review article.

That unconscious bias plus a bias for maintaining the status quo undoubtedly play a role in organizations that say they believe that women are just as competent as men, but every time a leadership role opens it, it’s filled by a man, because they “just can’t find” a woman with the right skill set. Or voters who say “I don’t vote based on gender, and I would for vote for a woman — just not that woman.”

The good news is, that once you begin to see the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways that women's voices and experiences are being discounted, you can do something about it. The BYU article lists seven suggestions.

First, men need to be deliberate about listening more and speaking less. Second, women need to speak up more. Third, allyship, and I would add, amplification, matter. Fourth, use consensus rather than “majority rule” to make decisions when gender balance is skewed. Fifth, watch out for stereotypes that could lead to overlooking women’s input on “masculine” topics (like tax policy, for example). Sixth, if you are in a position of leadership, use it to elevate all voices and seventh, be proactive in teaching and modeling a better way.

Here are some other ideas: Be proactive at seeking out and elevating women, something the Women’s Leadership Institute and other organizations have focused on. Be a mentor. Work to decrease hidden biases through system change, like the orchestras who now hold “blind” auditions and have seen a big jump in gender parity. Be willing to have difficult conversations. Train yourself to see the silencing of women and call it out.

Once we know better, we have a responsibility to do better.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune