“I’ve noticed that even when circumstances don’t require it, I’m sometimes reluctant to talk shop. One particular instance of this hesitation stands out in my mind: it occurred during a trip to Brazil back when I was a sell-side analyst. After a day of meetings, several buy-side investors (all men) and I were debriefing over dinner. When the conversation turned to America Movil, a stock that I covered (in sell-side parlance I was widely considered the ‘axe on the stock’), I began to demur, reluctant to share my opinion, despite my expertise in the subject. It felt like high school all over again, slipping into the adult equivalent of playing dumb.”
Whitney Johnson, founding partner of investment firm Rose Park Advisors wrote this in a recent article for The Harvard Business Review. Here is a woman who is at the top of the challenging finance game facing one of the most common hurdles amongst working women: not speaking up.
According to a recent study women talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day – 13,000 more than the average man. Dr. Luan Brizendine says that inherent differences between the male and female brain explain why women are naturally more talkative than men. Women actually devote more brainpower to talking than men. We communicate our thoughts, feelings and desires clearly and articulately to our friends and in social settings but at work we turn into the quiet ones in the conversation.
Though being quiet may seem like the safer way to play it won’t help you excel in your career. Johnson knows that being a listener is an extremely great skill to have as well but you need to talk as well. She said, “Unless women speak up — and I don’t mean just talk, but get fluent in and remain fluent in a domain of expertise, whether finance, technology, science, fashion, construction, law — the whole idea that women can bring something extra to the table and be game changers won’t happen.”
One female entrepreneur who used to work in finance said when they would meet with clients she would know all the information they needed to present and answer question backwards and forwards but she wouldn’t speak out of the fear of messing up. Her male colleagues simply didn’t possess that fear. She said some of them were way less prepared but they were going to make an impact because they spoke up at the meeting. As Sheryl Sandberg is always saying, women need to “Sit at the table. Don’t expect that you’ll get to the corner office by sitting on the sidelines.”
Women really need to work on being more bold, said Lisa Gates, founder, trainer and coach of She Negotiates, an institution that helps women with essential negotiation skills that positively impact every area of their life and work. “We keep quiet, we don’t speak up. That is our first biggest mistake,” she said. Look for opportunities to show off your accomplishments to your manager. “Women have to learn how to sing their own praises. The female thing we do is use words like ‘pretty good’, ‘sortuv’, ‘kinduv’. Men naturally brag and it looks good on them,” she said. “When we do it, we judge ourselves and we judge others.” Gates suggested if you just did a big project then go talk to your boss and tell him or her about it. “You need to say ‘I’d like to have this conversation – just open it up.”
Johnson believes that three most important things women need to work on are:
- Balancing the amount of listening with speaking: As we learned in elementary school, it is very important to be a good listener but you also have to talk. She said, “When we listen passively, we retain 5% of what we’ve learned, when we participate actively, 90%. If we are in situations over and over again where we are only listening, we erode our competitive edge. Especially when there is already a perceived competency gap of 70% in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it is vital that we close that gap, by opening our mouths. A low-end, low cost way of beginning to make this change is to invert our individual listening/talking ratio. “
- Women need to talk more shop: Men tend to talk more business shop talk with their colleagues and friends outside of work. Women tend to talk about other shops but if you have a friend in the same industry, talk a little business. It is good practice for work. Johnson said, “What better, safer place to practice sharing our expertise than with other women? When we flex our deep domain-expertise muscles, they get stronger. As we practice talking shop, we become more confident in sharing our knowledge and opinions, in any situation.”
- For managers, require everyone in the meeting to speak: Johnson has found that men walk into a meeting already talking about work while women are sitting their quietly listening waiting to officially begin. She thinks everyone should be required to speak for two minutes at the beginning of the meeting. “When we listen, we acknowledge others’ experience and expertise. When we talk, we acknowledge our own. Maybe your current forte is listening, perhaps it’s speaking. But success depends on learning to do both. “