What’s the biggest problem facing women in the workplace today? There are plenty of options, from lack of paid parental leave, to the gender pay gap, to the fact that women are less likely to hold leadership roles than men. But all those problems boil down to the same thing: in today’s workplace, women still don’t automatically command the same respect as men — and contrary to what you might have heard, it’s not because they need to learn to speak up or speak differently, but because they’re frequently not allowed to speak at all.
Take last night’s presidential debate. Vox did a tally: counting interruptions from moderator Lester Holt, Hillary Clinton was interrupted 70 times last night, while Donald Trump was interrupted only 47 times. Looking solely at the candidates, Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times, while Clinton interrupted Trump 17 times. Despite this, Clinton emerged the winner by most measures (polls, markets), showing that it is possible to be heard, even while being constantly interrupted.
When You’re a Woman, There’s No Right Way to Speak Up
Before you use the debate as an example proving that women need to learn how to assert themselves in conversation, consider this: assertive women aren’t well-regarded in business or politics, either. In negotiations, they pay a higher social penalty for asking for what they deserve; in politics, they’re constantly policed by public opinion about femininity vs. assertiveness.
Hillary Clinton’s style and grooming choices have received almost as much attention as her email server and policy decisions. Tellingly, her voice receives particular scrutiny. The Atlantic did a video investigation last month on the science of why Clinton’s voice is supposedly so annoying. (Their conclusion: yelling, enunciation … and sexism.)
A 2012 study published in Harvard Business Review and called Women, Find Your Voice, showed that while men and women agreed that it was difficult for women to be heard in meetings, they disagreed about why. Men were more likely to chalk it up to women being insufficiently assertive or going off on tangents, while women ascribed the problem to underrepresentation. It’s hard to speak up, when you’re the only person like you in the room.
Bottom line, there’s no “right way” for women to speak up, when the culture says that women should be quiet. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s performance at last night’s debate was so important: as the first woman in this particular room, and the widely acknowledged winner of the debate, Clinton provides an excellent example of how to make your voice heard, whether or not the men in the room want to hear it.
How Hillary Clinton Deals With Interrupters
1. Come prepared.
“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” said Clinton, after Trump touted his recent travels and accused her of having “decided to stay home.” “And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
It’s possible to ignore the most informed person in the room; companies do it all the time. But they do it at their peril. If you want to be recognized, the first and most important step is to make sure that you’re prepared and that your ideas are solid.
2. Insist on being heard.
At one point in the debate, Trump talked over Clinton so much that Holt interrupted him to remind him that this was Clinton’s two minutes. She promptly asked Holt to restart the clock. At other times, she either quietly and firmly continued speaking while Trump attempted to interrupt … or waited out his interjections and then started over again.
It’s not rude to ask someone to get off your foot when he’s standing on it, and it’s not “too aggressive” to demand equal time for your thoughts.
3. They go low, you go high.
“I like to remember what Michelle Obama said in her amazing speech at our Democratic National Convention: When they go low, we go high,” Clinton said.
There’s nothing to be gained from getting down into the mud with people. Stay above the fray, focus on facts, not emotions, and trust that your voice deserves to be heard.