Since the enactment of the Fair Pay act of 1963 (The National Committee on Pay Equity) women still earn only $4 dollars for every $5 dollars earned by a man. According to Pyramid (2016) female CEOs account for only 4% of the Fortune 500 companies. How is it that women are not standing on equal ground compared to their male colleagues after seventy years since this important legislation was passed?
Research shows that women who behave in ways that are uncharacteristically female, experience more backlash than their male counterparts. Specifically, Women who advocate for an issue are rated lower on performance reviews than their male counterparts who demonstrate stereotypical male (advocacy) behaviors. Advocacy behaviors are assertive and typically associated with men and recognized as valuable.
When women advocate for something they are penalized and negatively branded. Negative branding can result in promotion limitations for women that do not plague their male counterparts. Conversely, when women behave in ways that are characterized as communal (caring) they are praised and rewarded. However, when woman self-promote they are often rated lower than their male counterparts and receive lower performance ratings as well. A woman who promotes for others is often seen as communal and rewarded for caring for others. The question remains for women, how can they successfully self-promote to prove that they can play in the leadership arena when doing so invites backlash and lower performance evaluations than male counterparts?
The consequences of this backlash can lead to a gender based culture of silence. This exists when women decide to willfully withhold important work related information in order to stay psychologically safe from voice penalties. Two relevant silence types are Offensive and Defensive and both relate to a woman’s voice in the workplace and are the consequence of perceived egregious leadership practices. When women choose offensive silence (Bogosian, 2011) it is commonly because their ideas have been used without receiving credit. Defensive silence is the consequence of perceived backlash. In order to stay safe, woman can reduce their voice to stay out of harms way, e.g. backlash.
Much has been written recently about effective strategies for women to have a voice in the workplace. Are women paying the price for a cultural norm that no longer fits within a society deserving of equality? The answer is not an easy one and one pragmatic intervention may lie in three language style variations: (1) low challenge, (2) moderate challenge and (3) high challenge. High challenge language can be perceived as problematic which alerts the listener or (email) reader to the urgency of content. If the male reader or listener is expecting and accepting of communal (verbal) language and written tone, it is easier for him to reject the message altogether or worse to assign naïve attribution to the female speaker/author that is more about her motives and characteristics than about intent. Moderate challenge language, somewhere in between high and low challenge language expressed difficulty of a situation, a need for change and a way to avoid further decline or problems. Low challenge language expresses a problem as an upgrade opportunity, an improvement of a current state and way out of a situation. The use of low challenge language may seem to some woman that they are colluding with an unacceptable communication norm. Could this be a practical intervention for woman to ensure that their voice is heard and that it has merit?
Cultures of Voice should have no gender boundary. Until all voices can be heard without naïve attributions or gender bias, we will have Cultures of Silence that marginalize and inhibit the contributions of many. History should have taught us that Cultures of Silence and gender bias are perhaps the most risky phenomena operating in businesses today. My male colleagues have a lot of work to do in order to eliminate gender-based cultures of silence.
 Catalyst. Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies. New York: Catalyst, February 3, 2016.
 (2012) Rudman, et al, Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motives prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 165-179.
 (2010) Mos-Rucasin & Rudman. disruption in woman’s self promotion: A backlash avoidance model. Psychology of Woman Quarterly, 34, 186-202.