Carrie Arnolds's picture Submitted by Carrie Arnolds February 15, 2018 - 9:17am

2017 was an interesting year! We saw shifts in the political landscape that introduced new rhetoric and a women’s march. We saw females in Hollywood and politics stepping forward and breaking silence to share their experience with sexual harassment. They made the cover of Time Magazine as person of the year. From Wonder Woman to the first female doctor finally introduced on Doctor Who, we have seen a surge of powerful female moves. It remains to be seen if these acts of power, behavior, and voice are creating a new normal or if they will be looked back on as moments in history when women rose above a pervasive silencing culture.

Six years ago, I decided to explore the concepts of voice and silence with women. As an executive coach, I focused on the client group I work with most—female executives. The silenced female leader is a paradox as leadership implies a sense of voice and efficacy. Leaders need to communicate their purpose and vision to enlist followers. This can hardly be done through silence, yet my research suggests there are many women sitting in executive and senior-leader roles feeling silenced.

Women are silenced by systems that favor a dominant male discourse, or they may experience systems that prefer a majority style or opinion they do not resemble or share. As a default, their authentic style may be silenced by ingroup normative behaviors. There are also relationships that silence. Peers and direct reports who hold power in an organization can be commanding silencers, not to mention those in leadership who yield authority over others.

It is also a myth to assume that women are always silenced by men. This is not true. My research suggests that women silence other women in equal, and at times, more painful ways. Women often feel they have to adopt the male-dominant style of leadership and communication to be successful. When they do so, they can become silencers of their own gender in unconscious ways.

When women are not silenced by systems or relationships, they can become self-silencing. Females can go to great lengths to preserve relationships, and their association with an organization can become the entity they will silence themselves for to remain successful in their careers.

The impact of feeling silenced requires a greater level of awareness. My study results indicate that silencing impacts the brain, heart, soul, and body like a virus. It can be responsible for the following:

  • An overall diminished sense of agency – feeling stuck with few options
  • Cognitive spin – perseverating over conversations and encounters 
  • Deficit thinking – a saboteur’s voice that chatters about inadequacy
  • Emotional trauma – similar to physical trauma that creates fear and uncertainty
  • Isolation – leadership in itself is lonely, feeling silenced deepens that loneliness
  • Loss of self – the authentic leadership voice has slowly disappeared
  • Physical pain – digestive matters, respiratory issues, and full-body stress are just a few 
  • A diminished sense of leadership efficacy – how can you be your best when you have a virus?

We all can silence each other. Interrupting someone mid-sentence or breaking eye contact are easy examples. However, this natural phenomenon is part of life and rarely creates the viral impact of silencing. When women feel virally silenced, it is because of an egregious encounter or a pattern of micro-aggressions that slowly break down their immunity and efficacy, leaving them with a weakened leadership voice. In time, they realize how far they have strayed from their leader calling and purpose. This awareness can exasperate the feelings of isolation and create a risk for leadership opt-out.  

Unfortunately, making a leadership change or opting-out alone does not always bring recovery. In my study, only 25% of women who felt silenced over an extended period could say they felt recovered after making a change.

Recovery is complex and requires the partnership of both genders. When men step in and advocate for their female peers, change is possible. When men use the voice of advocacy, mentoring, and partnership (versus minding their own business), organizations and women experience positive change. It is also critical that women emerge from their isolation and form communities of practice with other women who share a similar leadership context. This peer group may not exist within their current organization and requires some intention with their time and resources.

Last, women need to be good stewards of their own leadership careers and focus on self-care. Our gender is exceptional at advocating and caring for others, but we are less skilled when it comes to our own needs and attending to each of our domains. As women partner with their healthy male colleagues, join communities of like-minded women, and focus on health and self-care, voice recovery and sustainability are possible. It will not happen by accident and requires discernment, risk, and willingness to name their experiences with feeling silenced. The act of naming and sharing their stories is an invitation for others. When women find voice—all find their voice!

There is a shared narrative of the silenced female leader that emerged in my research. It is a phenomenon that women are describing with similar metaphors, language, emotion, and thought. This narrative needs to enter into broader circles of conversation so organizations can surface healthy dialogue, secure female leader career trajectories, and shift dominant discourse that may not work for half the population. Whether 2017 is characterized as the year of moments or movements, our work is not done when it comes to creating environments where all voices are heard.