Professional women haven’t been at a loss for advice in recent years. There are countless articles about the ways women can advance their careers, despite an array of institutional and cultural barriers, whether it’s by better navigating the corporate “labyrinth,” cracking the “confidence code,” or “leaning in.”
And while it’s undoubtedly important to show women how to be better self-advocates, that’s only half the solution. When women do assert themselves, many often feel that no one hears them or takes their input as seriously as they should.
Men in leadership roles have an important role to play in creating an inclusive environment for their female colleagues. When male and female leaders can share the stage, their organizations and industries benefit. And it all starts with communication. Here are six steps professional men–and indeed, all leaders–can take towards that goal.
Psychologists have shown that, on balance, men don’t listen to women as well as women listen to men, an insight born out further by brain-based research. There are actually a few skill deficits at play here. It isn’t just that the men in these studies didn’t sufficiently tune in to what women were saying. It’s also that they didn’t offer confirmation that they were listening, even when they were.
In professional settings, those two shortcomings in any listener–male or female–are destructive. A speaker who feels she isn’t being heard, or suspects she won’t be, will often withhold her views. Ultimately, encouraging anyone to speak up is hollow advice if the environment isn’t conducive to their doing so.
Whether it’s due to inexperience, personality, or some other factor altogether, not everyone gets right to his or her point when speaking. Stay focused and show respect. As a leader, it’s your job not to get frustrated if you feel as though a colleague or team member isn’t being clear. Listen carefully, then ask questions like, “How does your view apply to situation X?” or, “Can you please elaborate?”
Leaders can also take a more active approach to getting their female colleagues to share their ideas. It can be as simple as saying, “I’d like to know Latoya’s thoughts, since she dealt with that issue in her last job.”
Resist the temptation to interrupt. Psychologists have found that men disproportionately interrupt women. In a recent study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, men initiated over 70% of gender-based interruptions.
Cutting someone off can seem like a practical way to keep things focused, but leaders should consider the signal that sends. Being interrupted can make the speaker feel that her point is of little value.
Instead, be patient. Give the speaker your full attention until she has finished. That will create a more collegial atmosphere where everyone can brush up on their communication skills over time–including making points more concisely–without being discouraged.
Leaders need to let everyone speak for themselves. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, a leader will interpret what someone’s just said. When the leader is male and the speaker female, it can appear especially patronizing. A woman in a private equity firm once complained to me that a male colleague finished her thoughts by saying, “What Maria is trying to say is . . . ” It created the impression that she wasn’t capable of expressing her own ideas.
Anytime someone has said something that doesn’t seem clear, simply offer a reinforcing statement–“That’s an important issue you raise”–then ask her to clarify her position: “What do you think about that in the context of X?”
Inclusive communication isn’t all about words. Some of the subtler, unsaid clues we drop–even without realizing it–can be as loud and clear as any verbal ones. That’s particularly true when it comes to attitude. For a very long time, workplaces have rewarded an assertive, even aggressive demeanor–something that’s been culturally associated with masculinity. Needless to say, that doesn’t suit all men, and it seldom suits women, either.
Regardless of their gender, those in leadership positions can intimidate their subordinates without meaning to. When a domineering attitude comes into play, particularly among male leaders, it can be really destructive. Avoid a strong tone of voice when you challenge others’ ideas. Don’t use pointed, condescending expressions like, “Really?” or “Are you sure?” or “Prove it!”
That behavior can be unnerving and cause people to pull back or go on the defensive. Leaders should adopt a tone that’s supportive and encourages everyone to share their ideas, even those they might disagree with.
Few of us are fully conscious 100% of the time of what our body language communicates to others. But for leaders, that’s all the more reason to stay attuned to it. Some people remain stone-faced as others are speaking, while others smile and nod with approval at those they’re listening to.
Certain body-language gestures fall along gender lines, at least anecdotally. In recent years, the term “manspreading” has entered the vernacular, to describe the way some men sit with their knees apart, as though to claim as much of the surrounding territory as they can. The effect can be imposing and unfriendly.
All leaders should develop more welcoming body language. Look at who you’re speaking with, show warmth with your facial expressions, and don’t cross your arms over your chest or make any other gesture that appears cold or closed off. These might sound obvious, but body language isn’t something we tend to think about, and being a little more self-aware can go a long way.
Finally, those in leadership positions should reach out and actively support women. Look for opportunities where women in your organization can really shine. If you’re putting together a conference, ask women to play visible roles. If you’re hiring a new team member, make sure you’re considering female candidates. Find mentorship opportunities for talented women on your team, either by offering your own time and expertise to help her develop her talents or by putting her in touch with colleagues who can. The bottom line: Play an active role in women’s success.
Since the ranks of upper management in the business world remain disproportionately held by men, male leaders in particular have a major role to play in creating diversity. The fact is that more inclusive work environments help everyone get ahead. What’s good for women is good for business.