Thursday, July 23, 2015

Did I just get #publicspeaking advice? Shade? Or a virtual "shut up"?

I've written here about how women speakers' hair, wardrobe, and overall appearance can be used against them as "virtual mute buttons" that keep us from hearing their words. But there's another virtual mute button out there, one that's even more perturbing to women speakers: Public speaking advice that's really an attempt to put them back in their place, preferably a silent place.

Here's a good example: A young woman friend sought my advice after she'd been on a radio program, interviewed about a debate on a feminist issue. Her role was to defend the feminist perspective, and she did so, eloquently and energetically. But after the interview aired, a male mentor called her and said, "Janet, you really need to be more likable in these interviews." Her question to me was: How? Should she have laughed more or made jokes? Smiled more? Talked about the issue in different language? A different tone of voice? Thankfully, a radio interview ruled out what would have been additional questions on dress and appearance.

So here was an eminently likable young professional woman, an excellent speaker, trying to figure out how to be more likable (dictionary definition: pleasant and appealing).  She saw it automatically as something to work on. I saw it as a way to shut her up, or at least, throw her off her game. You may hear something different--an urging for you to be or feel more confident, or talking to you about changing your hair or wardrobe.

The "likable" criticism is especially insidious--that is, treacherous and crafty at the same time. That's because, as I posted in 2008, there's research to show that in the eyes of society, women can be seen as either competent or likable, but not both. So if you're competent, we don't like you, and if you're likable, we don't see you as competent. Considering that most management consultants say that executives should aim for both competence and likability, this is as good an example of a double-standard for women as I have seen. My post quoted journalist Nick Kristof talking about the research:
...one lesson from this research is that promoting their own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments, that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are....The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.
And simply doing your speaking in public, be it a conference hall or on the radio or television, can easily be seen as "promoting your own successes" or "highlighting your accomplishments," thus bringing out the subtle undermining. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put it this way: “For men, likbility and success is correlated. As they get more successful, more powerful, they’re better liked. For women, success and likability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful, more powerful - she is less liked."

Here's how I characterized it in Criticizing and undermining: How do you respond in a meeting?:
In a world where most businesspeople understand that it's wrong to discriminate against women, that discrimination hasn't gone away--it's just gone underground. Undermining is a coded, seemingly more clever way to unsettle strong women in the workplace. After all, if a man or a woman threatened by your success or potential can't overtly block your progress, they can at least try to get you to be quiet, to doubt yourself or to pay attention to the criticism, instead of your goals. If you're impervious to that criticism, they can work at making it seem as if many others doubt you, damaging your reputation, perhaps.
The boundary-setting tactics in that post work just as well when you've just given a speech or a media interview, as well as in meetings. If this happens a lot--and it does--you'd be smart to have some prepared responses in your back pocket. First and foremost, before you rush to accept the advice, think about why it's being given.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Rach)

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