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Men should listen to Sheryl Sandberg’s new op-ed. But if they don’t, that proves her point.

When Sheryl Sandberg talks, people listen. If only that were true of all women.
When Sheryl Sandberg talks, people listen. If only that were true of all women.
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One of Sheryl Sandberg's most famous instructions for women is to sit at the proverbial table — show up at that meeting, participate, and make your presence known. In a new op-ed, Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant dissect the problem of "speaking while female." Women might sit at the table, but once we open our mouths it's a whole other story — one full of interruptions or just being ignored. Sandberg and Grant point to research that shows women who speak up simply don't get the attention or credit that men do. Even worse, women can be penalized for it — in one study, women who (rightly) pointed out a store's bookkeeping system was flawed were seen as less loyal.

The piece clearly lays out the problem and even one great solution — disrupt the bias by giving women the floor — but the people who need to read it might not get the most important message. There's one subtle but crucial idea I wish Sandberg and Grant hammered harder in their piece: These interrupters aren't actively trying to crush women's ideas, but they're still doing it. Many men I know who count themselves as feminists (and I believe them) still plow right through a woman's thoughts mid-sentence. I'm firmly convinced that many don't know they're doing it.

Subconscious bias is everywhere. In 2012, Yale researchers found that science professors at US colleges and universities regarded undergrad women as less competent as equally credentialed men — a judgment they made without even thinking about it. And it's not just men at fault — one 2014 study found that women are interrupted more, even by other women. There are countless other studies, several of which Sandberg and Grant list in their piece, showing how men will dominate professional conversations, and how people will discount an idea when it comes from a woman, but not a man.

These sorts of subconscious gendered attitudes come out in behaviors that go well beyond interrupting. A famous Pantene ad last year sparked debate over the phenomenon of women pre-apologizing for everything they say and do. Again, many women don't even realize they're doing it. These gender attitudes even come out on the sidewalk. Recently, New York magazine reported, a woman documented what happened when she walked down the streets of New York without moving out of anyone's path — "walking like a man," the magazine called it. The result? She was "repeatedly body-checked," usually by men.

As Sandberg details in Lean In, we all have gender biases both benevolent (women are naturally better at raising kids) and negative (women aren't as competent in business as men). Everyone's sexist, and far too often, it silences women.

To be sure, women do interrupt other women as well, but even as Sheryl says, we need more women in positions of power to normalize the idea of women having the big ideas. And that's just one step in the fight for gender equality.

This all gets at a broader point about equality: we don't just get to declare ourselves feminists, pat ourselves on the backs, and move on. An office can be super "woman-friendly," with all the trappings that usually entails, like maternity and paternity leave and lactation rooms and child-friendly scheduling. A boss can strive to make her or his team half-women, half-men. But so many of the other things that really make an office gender-equal have to do with what's going on in our heads, not in the HR department.

Indeed, even the practice of becoming more diverse can upset workers. A 2014 study from researchers at George Washington University and MIT found that more gender-diverse workplaces perform better financially but have more unhappy employees. On the flip side, the researchers wrote, "employees seem more cooperative (and more satisfied overall ... ) in an environment supportive of but lacking in diversity." Feeling righteous about diversity makes us feel warm and fuzzy, but the discomfort of putting it into practice upsets us.

Google is maybe the most famous example of an organization working to stop unconscious biases in their tracks. A new diversity program at the tech giant seeks to convince employees that they are all biased, and then to train them to spot those biases in their workplaces.

"Suddenly you go from being completely oblivious to going, ‘Oh my god, it's everywhere,' " Google's head of HR told the New York Times.

This brings to mind that catcalling video that took over the internet last fall. I saw men respond to this video with surprise and outrage, while I heard women joke about it — how is something that happens every day suddenly news?

So if your workplace isn't Google, you could always install a hidden camera at your next meeting. Or just send around the Sandberg link. As that Google executive said, once you've seen the bias, it's everywhere.

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