The Silencing of Female Leaders


In her dissertation, Dr. Carrie Arnold discovered that silencing is a common experience among female leaders. When they experience silencing, female leaders notice a shift in their leadership behavior, becoming disengaged with peers and direct reports. Unfortunately, this disengagement can contribute to further silencing of women in the organization. Among the women she interviewed, Dr. Arnold noted that only 25% were able to recover from silencing experiences without making a job change or opting out of leadership. Of those who respond to silencing by making a job change, only half were able to full recover from those experiences. Feeling silenced in the workplace impacts not only leadership behavior but also women's physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual health. In order to combat the phenomenon of silencing in the workplace, Dr. Arnold recommends two possible solutions: (1) acknowledging the problem; and (2) engaging in community and self-care.

Acknowledging the Problem

When I think back on my early leadership experiences, I now recognize systems of power and privilege that contributed to my own silencing and my sense of inadequacy. At the time, however, I did not have the language to describe what I was experiencing. I knew SOMETHING was happening to me, but it was covert and strange, and most of the time, I thought my feelings must have been irrational. But once I learned that these experiences had names and were actual concepts with definitions and research behind them, I felt an incredible sense of relief and freedom. I was relieved to discover that I wasn't crazy, wasn't imagining things. I felt free because I finally had language and words to describe my experiences and began talking to others about them. The act of speaking the name of the problem ~ SILENCING ~ is itself an act of regaining voice efficacy. Although acknowledging the problem of silencing women does not mean it will stop happening, it does make overt the proverbial white elephant in the room.

Engaging in Community and Self-Care

The women in Arnold's study who were able to recover from silencing experiences did so through engaging in communities of self-care ~ networks of other female leaders who verified and validated their experiences and offered support to one another. For women who are senior executives or CEOs, these communities must often come from outside of their organizational context, therefore requiring intention to identify and maintain these connections. As women move out of the isolation of silencing and into community, they become more empowered to attend to the silencing of women below them in their organization. This act of giving voice to others is essential in regaining one's own voice efficacy.

As a female leader, how have you overcome experiences of silencing? What enabled you to regain your voice?

Read Dr. Arnold's white paper to learn more about her research and the phenomenon of silencing.

Jaime GoffComment