In their zeal to erase all discrimination between men and women, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have identified a problem that is crying out for a solution.
Apparently, women do not talk enough.
Stifle your tendency to snicker.
They mean that women do not talk enough in business meetings. And that when they do, their ideas are dismissed or discarded.
We must underscore the fact that the Grant/Sandberg argument is based on an unspoken and unexamined assumption: namely, that there is no significant difference in the way that men and women articulate their ideas. And that there is no significant difference in the quality of those ideas.
Grant and Sandberg believe that they have exposed a serious problem. If you put men and women in a writers’ room, to work on a television series, men talk more than women. Not only that, men’s views and more respected than women’s. Worse yet, men tend to interrupt women and even to steal women’s ideas.
It would appear that many great ideas have been tossed aside because their authors have been of the female gender.
Of course, we do not know whether women have better or worse ideas. We suspect, as we long have, that the market provides an easy way to test this.
Given the free market, no company has a vested interest in ignoring the best ideas. Any individual has the right to go elsewhere and ply his or her trade.
If women are subject to unjust discrimination one need but create a company that is majority female and watch it compete against companies that dismiss women’s ideas.
Of course, the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg must have the power to do something about this. She can adopt her own prescription, the one that appears at the end of this article. She can shut down all the men and only listen to the views of women.
Surely, that will do wonders for corporate morale.
Grant and Sandberg were ecstatic when President Obama only called on female reporters at one of his news conferences. They recommend that companies try it out:
As 2015 starts, we wonder what would happen if we all held Obama-style meetings, offering women the floor whenever possible. Doing this for even a day or two might be a powerful bias interrupter, demonstrating to our teams and colleagues that speaking while female is still quite difficult. We’re going to try it to see what we learn.
But, what will happen if the men whose voices have been suppressed become testy and hostile… especially towards the females who seem to be receiving an unfair advantage merely because of their gender.
Will these men react by speaking more loudly, by acting more aggressively and by calling the bluff?
Consider this. A couple of decades ago schoolteachers were made aware of the fact that they were calling on boys more than on girls. Then were told that they were manifesting a bias in favor of the boys in their class.
So, a quiet revolution has been going on in America’s classrooms for many years now. Teachers often go out of their way to call on girls. They make a point of ignoring boys. Moreover, they gear the classroom discussions and assignments to students who have a more feminine sensibility.
One result is that girls do better at school than boys. Another is that boys retreat to worlds of STEM subjects and videogames. If teachers refuse to discuss heroic enterprises like wars, male students retreat to the world of video games.
Here’s the problem. In their zeal to produce social justice schoolteachers have produced a hostile culture environment, one that oppresses boys by suppressing their speech and ignoring their interests.
Unfortunately for them, there’s more to life than schoolwork. What happens when these same boys find themselves involved in relationships with girls? Are they going to want to develop meaningful conversations based on emotional sharing or are they going to be looking for payback?
When these boys grow up and take jobs in the real world will they be more likely to show respect when women offer ideas or will they be reminded of the discrimination they felt in school and seek payback?
I offer these examples to suggest that the issue is far more complex than the authors believe.
“Leaning in” sounds like a good idea. It seems to be a means to overcome an injustice.
In essence, it’s a bluff. The problem with a bluff is that someone some day is going to call it.
And yet, when a woman learns how to lean in, when she develops the habit of getting in peoples’ faces, she is likely to employ the same form of macho posturing in her personal relationships.
Leaning in… might or might not work in the office. What effect will it have on the rest of a woman’s life?
One must recognize that many women do not want to claw their way up the corporate hierarchy. That is their prerogative. Many women do not want to compete against men. And they do not want to mimic male behavior.
But, if they do want to succeed in business and to have their voices heard they should, at the very least, adopt a strategy that does not deny the fact that they are women. And they should not send the message that they can only express themselves when men are forced to shut up.
Besides, if suppressing men’s voices is such a good idea, why doesn’t Sandberg do it at Facebook? And, why is Facebook so notable lacking in diversity.
After all, only 31% of Facebook employees are female. And 91% are white and Asian.
Is Facebook a hotbed of bigotry?
These are not the only problems in the Grant/Sandberg approach.
The authors seem to believe that the number of words spoken matters. Since they offer few examples of different verbal expressions, we are left to believe that men and women say roughly the same things in roughly the same way.
This strains credulity.
Different people have different leadership styles. Some people speak very few words but try to make their words count for more. Some people chatter on all the time about nothing in particular.
Human interactions do not just happen in meetings. People interact with colleagues all the time. If one individual babbles on outside of meetings, when that individual makes a salient point in a meeting, the assembled group is less likely to pay heed.
If an individual speaks very little at meetings, when that individual offers an idea it might be taken more seriously.
When people consulted with the Delphic oracle they did not worry about the word count.
If we want to know why women are not taken more seriously in writers’ rooms or at team meetings, we would need to know how these women talk and interact with other team members at other times. No meeting is an island… separated from the main of office conversation and relationships.
Moreover, one is obliged to ask how many of these women are feminists? How many of them have an ideological commitment that supersedes their obligations to their company? How many of them offer ideas that will be good for the company and how many of them offer ideas that will be good for feminism?
If we assume that most women are trying to do a great job, not to make an ideological point, it might well be the case that the ambient discourse, led by feminists like Sheryl Sandberg, has created an atmosphere where their words are subject to doubt, because they might be based on an ideology.
To call the observed phenomena evidence of bias is to oversimplify. Some of what appears to be bias might well be rational mental processing.
To take a variant on an example that is often cited, let’s imagine that someone talks to you about a nurse. You will normally assume that said nurse is a female. If, in fact, 90% percent of nurses are female you will be making a safe assumption, albeit one that will not prove true in all cases.
If the nurse in question is male, should you be taxed with bigotry or gender bias? Or are you simply economizing your mental processing?
And, if the vast majority of great investors or great business leaders over time have been male, would it be rational or irrational to give more initial credence to the ideas of a male colleague?
Are you using your brain power economically when you ignore probabilities in order to be ideologically correct?
But, the issue in a company is not just the contributions that individuals can make. It’s about how well people get along with each other, how well they cooperate.
The Grant/Sandberg article suggests that men and women have great difficulty cooperating, even respecting each other.
And yet, if men do not take women very seriously when they speak up at meetings, doesn’t that suggest that women, with a few notable exceptions, will not be very effective at managing men?
You cannot manage a staff if many members donot respect your word. And you cannot win or earn that respect by telling all the men to shut up.