Women who choose to stay mute at work rather than run the risk of unfair criticism and judgment aren't just being paranoid. They're being silenced. 

That's according to Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The two are writing a series of essays in the New York Times on women in the workplace. Their second installment highlights research that offers clues as to why many women hold back around the meeting room table. In short, it's because they're penalized for talking -- when they're permitted to say anything in the first place.

Grant's research has shown that it can be much more difficult for women to earn recognition for making a valuable contribution than it is for men. After observing a health care company and and international bank, Grant found that when male employees introduced an idea that brought in new revenue, they received significantly higher performance evaluations. Meanwhile, women who contributed equally valuable ideas did not see a boost in their performance reviews.

Sandberg and Grant also pointed to a study by Yale psychologist, Victoria L. Brescoll who asked professionals to judge the competence level of chief executives whom they observed. Brescoll's results showed that when male executives spoke more than their peers, they received a 10 percent higher competency rating. On the other hand, talkative female executives received a 14 percent lower rating.

The No-Interruptions Rule

Making it even more difficult for women to speak up, Sandberg and Grant argue, is the fact that men have a tendency to interrupt. In their article, they relate an anecdote about a television producer who implemented a no-interruptions rule to encourage female writers to participate during story meetings.

Could his team have benefited from a talking stick? While it might seem more appropriate to an elementary school classroom than a boardroom, the prop has its proponents. Former venture capitalist Carla Valdes told Inc. that she insisted her colleagues, who were men, use one when she joined Fortify Ventures. 

"We'd be in really heated discussions, and I'd interrupt them, and they would say, 'Don't interrupt me!' But they would interrupt each other all the time. I said, 'Fine. We are having a talking stick,'" Valdes said.

Make no mistake: As Valdes pointed out, the one-voice-at-a-time rule is important because men get interrupted, too. Sandberg and Grant also cite research that shows when men are in the minority, they are the ones who are less likely to be heard. 

Eileen Fisher, founder of the women's fashion company that bears her name, pointed out that you simply stand to lose too much when your employees aren't invested.

"Making space for different kinds of people, different voices, different ideas, is really important for the success of the business," she told Inc. This means it isn't just a gender issue.

"We recently created a circle just of younger people to brainstorm ideas. They were so grateful to be heard and had so many wonderful ideas," Fisher said. "We are on a path to implement some of them already." 

Published on: Jan 13, 2015