Facebook exec slams diversity gap in meetings culture

15 January 2015 -


Sheryl Sandberg takes aim at barriers that female employees face while trying to get their voices heard in the office

Jermaine Haughton

Facebook senior executive Sheryl Sandberg has attacked bosses for failing to provide more encouraging atmospheres for women to voice their opinions in the workplace. Writing in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Sandberg and workplace academic Adam Grant highlighted the lack of respect that women routinely feel they experience in meetings, and urged leaders to air more diverse views to promote healthier cultures.

In particular, the piece suggested that women are made to feel bad about sharing their thoughts and ideas, which ultimately negates their confidence and productivity. “We’ve both seen it happen again and again,” they wrote. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

Sandberg and Grant identified the malaise as a “double-bind” problem, whereby women are punished for behaving in the same fashion as males. They wrote: “This speaking-up double bind harms organisations by depriving them of valuable ideas. A University of Texas researcher, Ethan Burris, conducted an experiment in which he asked teams to make strategic decisions for a bookstore. He randomly informed one member that the bookstore’s inventory system was flawed and gave that person data about a better approach.

“In subsequent analyses, he found that when women challenged the old system and suggested a new one, team leaders viewed them as less loyal and were less likely to act on their suggestions. Even when all team members were informed that one member possessed unique information that would benefit the group, suggestions from women with inside knowledge were discounted."

Placing the responsibility on employers, the pair concluded that boosting the number of women in management positions would be a suitable answer to the issue: “Professor Burris and his colleagues studied a credit union where women made up 74% of supervisors and 84% of front-line employees. Sure enough, when women spoke up there, they were more likely to be heard than men.”

Sandberg and Grant also noted that Barack Obama made headlines with his final press conference of 2014 by fielding questions entirely from female journalists and sidestepping their male counterparts – but they argued that it would not have been newsworthy at all if the situation had been reversed and female reporters were ignored.

In its recent report The MoralDNA of Performance, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) urged managers to do more to counter ignorance and groupthink by promoting diverse opinions across the board. According to the report, CMI's research “clearly demonstrates that the ethic of obedience is less strongly associated with high performance than reason and care”, so on that basis, “employers must encourage consideration and care about other people’s interests and perspectives”.

It added: “Differences in gender, age and seniority clearly affect ethical biases which can enable more balanced decision making, so in order to make the right decisions, promote constructive dissent and encourage reasoning. The lack of diversity in the boardroom has been identified as a major threat to companies, so explore how your organisation challenges ‘groupthink’ – how can you do more to include a diversity of outlook, experience or behaviour at the top?”

Find the full report The MoralDNA of Performance here.

Image of Sheryl Sandberg courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

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