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When women speak up, they get punished

Gender bias is a reality, but recognizing it can spark change

Beth Wolfson //July 20, 2016//

When women speak up, they get punished

Gender bias is a reality, but recognizing it can spark change

Beth Wolfson //July 20, 2016//

What if your colleagues discriminated against you just for being assertive? Unfortunately, gender bias is a reality in today’s workplace. Our research reveals women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived worth by $15,088 when they are equally as assertive or forceful as their male colleagues. Assertive men are also punished, but to a much lesser degree.

One training participant we worked with recently said that before she could even finish her sentence, her colleague had already jumped to the wrong conclusion about her intentions.

“It seems like such an uphill battle,” she said. “I was trying to volunteer to help out, and my colleague believed I was trying to take over. As a woman, you can’t win.”

While unacceptable, gender bias does exist, and learning more about its nuances is the first step toward igniting change. Eliminating bias altogether will require changing the cultural, legal, organizational and social influences that make it costly for employees—especially women—to speak up.

And while society slowly turns the wheels of change, our research seeks to give victims of social inequality strategies and skills for expressing strong opinions while minimizing social backlash.

The Research: Framing Statements

We wondered whether brief framing statements that demonstrate deliberation, forethought, and control would reduce the social-backlash and emotion-inequality effects.

To test our hypothesis, we asked 8,000 participants to rate the performance of a “manager”. We showed participants videotaped interactions that featured either a male or female actor portraying the manager. The actors were rated to be equally attractive, used identical scripts, and were coached to deliver near-identical performances. The only difference was their gender. Using this method, we tested three frames:

  • Behavior Frame: The actors described what they were about to say before saying it: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”

This frame sets an expectation. It makes sure the statement that follows doesn’t come as a surprise. Without the frame, observers are blindsided by the force of the emotion and may assume the worst—that the person has lost his or her temper. This frame prevents this negative conclusion.

  • Value Frame: The actors described their motivation in value-laden terms before making the statement of disapproval: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”

This frame gives a positive reason for the emotion. In fact, it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value.

  • Inoculation Frame: The female actor suggested it could be risky for a woman to speak up the way she was about to: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

This phrase warns observers that they may have an implicit bias. It causes them to try hard to be fair or to adjust their judgment in an effort to be fair.

The results showed that the managers who used a brief framing statement reduced the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects by 27 percent!

Skills for Speaking Up

Speaking forcefully creates a social backlash for both men and women—though it’s more severe for women. This backlash occurs when observers use the emotion to draw negative conclusions about the speaker’s intent. The backlash is reduced when the speaker takes a few seconds to explain her positive intent before stating her content. Here are a few recommended actions:

  • Use a Behavior or Value Frame: Use one of these frames before stating your disagreement. The Behavior Frame demonstrates you are in control of your emotions. The Value Frame demonstrates commitment to a shared value. While the Inoculation Frame worked surprisingly well, we believe it could be seen as “playing the gender card”. While it may create short-term benefits, it can also damage a user’s reputation in the long run.
  • Share your good intent: Quickly and clearly explain your positive intent before sharing your strong opinion. It may also be useful to explicitly state what you do not intend. For example, “I came to speak with you to try to find the best way to solve our inability to match specs, I didn’t come here to finger point or blame.”
  • Learn additional skills to create safety: High-stakes, emotional, disagreements require special skills, but these are skills anyone can learn. Read a book such as Crucial Conversations or Crucial Accountability, participate in a webinar, or take a course. Whatever you choose to do, make sure to build in realistic practice so you’ll learn how to use your skills under pressure.

Social backlash can shut down even the best and bravest in your organization. Today’s workplaces cannot thrive if employees—regardless of gender—don’t speak up. Those equipped with the skills to frame their assertive comments will reduce the effects of emotional inequality and enjoy greater candor, stronger working relationships, and better results.


Beth Wolfson is President of Beth Wolfson Leadership Consulting Services located in Denver. She is a VitalSmarts Master Trainer and helps organizations locally and internationally engage in healthy dialog resulting in improved results and relationships. Email her at [email protected]


David Maxfield is the Vice President of Research at VitalSmarts, a global training and consulting firm headquartered in Provo, Utah. He is also a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker and leading social scientist for organizational change. Find out more at