If you're a man, what I'm about to say may not make much sense to you. If you're a woman, I bet it will sound familiar. You're in a meeting. Everyone is talking, shooting off ideas, suggestions, and criticisms of one another's approaches. The men in the room are all talking loudly, sometimes over each other. The women are hanging back, and when they do talk, they're harder to hear in the general discussion. Their ideas often go by the wayside. Or maybe they're even repeated by men who wind up getting the credit for them.
Unfortunately, that scenario plays out all the time at many workplaces. One of those workplaces is the White House, traditionally a hard-driving, testosterone-filled atmosphere where advocating loudly for your point of view has always been the norm. Women have held key positions as advisers to the president at least as far back as the Carter administration. But they haven't always had an easy time making their voices heard.
So in the Obama administration, women in key positions got together and adopted a strategy they called "amplification," according to a story in yesterday's Washington Post. It works like this: If a woman in a meeting makes a key point, the other women there repeat that point, making sure to mention the woman who said it first. This has two effects. First, because the comment is being repeated, it's much more difficult to talk over or ignore it. Second, because the name of the person who first proposed the idea is firmly associated with it, it prevents anyone else in that hyper-competitive atmosphere from claiming the idea.
Amplification works, according to the anonymous female White House staffer who told the Post about it. "We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it," she said. The president noticed, she said, and soon started calling more on women during meetings.
Why amplification is necessary
If you've never felt like an outsider in a highly competitive group like this, you may feel approaches like this are unnecessary or even a bit silly. But if you have been in this situation, you know better. I remember trying to change the world all on my own in an advanced college program I attended as an 18-year-old. I found myself in a group of extremely smart, ambitious, and energetic young people, all of whom were passionate about the classes we were taking. But I couldn't help noticing that in nearly every class where discussions took place, the male students did all the talking while the girls mostly sat quietly by.
Determined to break the pattern, I took it upon myself to jump into the conversation--loudly--whenever I had anything relevant to say. (If I'd been older and smarter, it might have occurred to me to talk to the other women in the program about supporting one another in speaking up more.)
I got heard. But at a party at the end of the term, one of the male students admitted he had disliked me throughout the semester because I seemed pushy. When I explained that I was speaking up on purpose because female voices were so rarely heard in the classroom, I saw a look of stunned realization cross his face. He had never noticed until I said it that he and our other male classmates were dominating every discussion. I believe that's what usually happens. Excluding women from important conversations (as also happened at the recent iPhone 7 launch) is less a matter of intention and more a matter of unconscious habit. Which is even worse.
Why you should try it yourself
If you're a woman in a male-dominated workplace, it might make sense to try working with other women to do amplification or find other ways to make sure female voices are heard. And it doesn't have to be just women. It can work equally well for any group that, for whatever reason, isn't being listened to or supported in discussions.
But it begins with awareness. Things like who talks more in a group meeting can be a subtle question. We may be so accustomed to the status quo that we don't notice it. It took months of attending my college program before it struck me one day that the women weren't taking part in the discussions. I don't know if I'm the only one who noticed, but I never heard anyone else remark on it.
The point is for everyone, women and men, to take the time to notice who's being loud and who's being quiet, who's included in important conversations and who isn't. And then we can all work to change it.