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Are you being silenced at work?

Woman covering her mouth

Although the workforce is evenly split between men and women, men and women are not equally using their voices.

If you’re a woman leader, you may have experienced a phenomenon called “silencing,” a “unique and widespread leadership issue impacting millions of women in the workforce,” according Dr. Carrie Arnold.

Arnold, who has done extensive research on the topic, says silencing leaves women feeling “muted, suppressed or muffled” and unable to express themselves and it introduces substantial barriers to upward mobility.

How many of these silence-inducing situations have you experienced?

  • Deliberate exclusion from meetings
  • Lack of responsiveness to your requests or emails
  • Public and private criticism or controlling behavior
  • Dismissive comments that question your expertise because of your gender or role
  • A system that reinforces a predominantly male view of leadership

 Women can be silenced by both peers and supervisors, Arnold says, and equally by men and women. Also, “systems of privilege” such as favoring one style of leadership, certain groups or affiliations over another — silence women.

When women are silenced

Silencing reduces a woman’s effectiveness as a leader and can alter her career trajectory. Silenced female leaders become disengaged, viewing their situations as no-win.

Only about 25 percent recover their voice without making a job change or opting out of a leadership role. But even when they opt out of a leadership position or change jobs, only about half of the women fully recover from their silencing experience.

Silencing takes a cognitive, emotional, spiritual and (for many) physical toll with digestive or respiratory issues and full-body stress.

Challenging the silence

The first step to addressing silencing is for companies to better understand it. Women who have been silenced need relationships with other women who understand what they’re going through and who have had similar experiences, Arnold says. A woman may need to look outside of her company to find this community.

Silenced women can also heal by helping give a voice to others. “As she becomes aware of those who are also silenced in her organization or community, she seeks to not further silence,” Arnold notes in “The Silenced Leader.” “She finds voice by becoming a role model and a sponsor for women.”

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Neena Newberry is president of Newberry Executive Solutions. A former Deloitte executive, she is an executive coach who helps women "think and play big."

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.