Monday, August 16, 2010

When do women speakers need a tough skin?

When women experience difficulty speaking, or just speaking up, in the workplace, what can they do? A few recent articles suggest they toughen up--but at least one suggests that tactic may not work to their advantage when negotiating.

In this Washington Post commentary, Sharon Meers says women need "Thick Skin, and More of It."  Meers is the co-author of Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All.She also is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs who now works in Silicon Valley.

She says, of the way we raise girls:
Girls also need a layer that boys don't - added protection to be successful outsiders, until we finally get comfortable with females wielding power as overtly as men do. Not long after I snapped at Derek's boss, I was assigned a mentor. This woman was the rarest of breeds, a female proprietary trader, Wall Street 1988. She took me to drinks and said, "You're going to be lonely. But you'll succeed if you want to."
Note that she's not suggesting you'll become a real insider...just a successful outsider.  She shares this study that quantifies that feeling:
Columbia professor Claude Steele recently conducted a study showing that even female engineers (no strangers to being outnumbered by men), have higher heart rates, temperature and distraction when they are less than 25% of the room. Make the room gender-neutral and group results improve - women perform well and men perform no worse.
Meers cites this Harvard Business Review article by Jeffrey Pfeffer on "Women and the Uneasy Embrace of Power" to make her case. Pfeffer says, "It's true that women tend to be perceived more negatively and be less liked when they use the same power strategies as men. (This is an unfair reality that Alice Eagly has referred to as 'the double bind.') But there is little evidence to suggest that those strategies aren't just as effective for women."

On The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, readers reacted this way, and shared some tips and resources:

  • Shelley Hanes said: "I just spoke with one of my supervisors yesterday about my need to get thicker skin. I also have had people who know me well say the same... I am working on it. I agree building extra skin takes time, life experience and putting into practice new ideals. Thank you I needed to read this post at this point in my life."
  • Coffee DaRealist Beanz shared, "I also absolutely love the book entitled A Woman in Your Own Right: Assertiveness and You. It teaches women about being assertive without being aggressive. Must Read!!!"
When should you reconsider a tough demeanor?

Harvard's Program on Negotiation asks "when does personality matter?" when it comes to negotiation, and cites research showing it may not matter as much as we think it does:
Why do we hold on to the notion that toughness matters so much in negotiation? In part because of the predictable and repeated errors we make when sizing up situations and processing information. Prior to negotiation, a fixed-pie bias leads us to falsely assume that our interests are incompatible with those of our counterpart. Once at the table, we’re vulnerable to the negativity bias, which causes us to react more strongly to negative information, such as threats, than to positive information, such as revelations about possible tradeoffs.
What to do instead? Stay curious about the person with whom you're negotiating and the issue, asking questions to elicit information and to look for different preferences you can exploit to create a shared "win."

What do you think? What are your experiences? Share them in the comments.

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