SAN FRANCISCO – Amplification is getting amplified.
The technique, used by senior women at the White House to ensure their voices were heard, is getting a lot of attention on social media — and sparking discussion of other ways women can advocate for themselves.
In a story in the Washington Post Tuesday, a top female White House staffer described an agreement senior women made to keep from getting drowned out by male colleagues.
When a woman makes an important point in a meeting, the other women repeated it, giving clear credit to its originator. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.
The staffers adopted the strategy because too often their ideas were not making it to the table, said the article.
But the pressure cooker of the White House is by no means the only place this happens, say women.
“I’ve been in plenty of meetings when a woman makes a comment and then a male board members says the same thing and acts as if it was their idea,” said Magdalena Yesil, an angel investor to tech companies and former general partner at US Venture Partners.
She’s sat in countless board meetings and seen it at work.
“A board dynamic just like in a family dynamic, there are usually one or two people who happen to have louder voices or who happen to be incredibly opinionated. Oftentimes women are not in that category,” she said.
In her 20 plus years in Silicon Valley, Nazila Alasti, founder and former CEO of the company Jooners, has come up with a rule for the women she mentors to help combat just that. When you’re in a meeting, she says, make sure you talk at least once and “at a decibel level higher than comfortable for you.”
The 'shine theory'
A similar technique is the “shine theory.” Writer Ann Friedman coined the term in 2013, from the phrase "I don't shine if you don't shine." She got it from her friend Amina and it, too, has taken on a life of its own.
Instead of being avoiding women who are “intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful and professional accomplished,” befriend them, she writes.
“Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better,” she said in her essay.
The approach has been a “major revelation” to her. It ties in to the “associative property of awesomeness: People know you by the company you keep.... Not only that, but I want the strongest, happiest, smartest women in my corner,” she said.
The idea of women banding together to support each other in the workplace got its own survival guide in Feminist Fight Club , published this week. Author Jessica Bennett describes her group of friends who met monthly to share sexist job frustrations and ways to combat them. The result was a lot of promotions and a book.
The "fight moves" she suggests are very Millennial and very funny, though many have names or descriptions not appropriate for a family newspaper, which isn't to say the underlying scenarios aren't all too common.
Bennett describes "the Dismisser," "the Bropriator" the "Himitator" and offers techniques on taking each of them down.
For "The Maninterrupter" who talks over women in a meeting? "Verbal Chicken," raising your voice to drown them out until the offender gives in. A hysterical video gives examples.
Between a rock and a hard place
There’s plenty of research to support the idea, though the term “amplification” is a new way to describe it, says Gina Bianchini, CEO of Mightybell, a software firm in Palo Alto, Calif., and co-founder of LeanIn.org.
It touches on the 'rock and a hard place' problem women face. In America, the cultural expectation is that women will advocate for others, as opposed to advocating on behalf of themselves. They're seen as aggressive, pushy or even "bitchy" if they do, while the same behavior in men is seen as positive.
Bianchini's strategy is to leverage the cultural ethos to benefit both women, the one making the point and the one endorsing it.
“A woman could say, ‘Well, Audra makes a really good point, I want to stop on that for a little while and talk about it,’ which builds credibility not just for the speaker but also for the person whose idea it was,” she said.
"It's a woman who boasts on your behalf," she says. "When I was at Newsweek, a colleague and I agreed to be each others' boast bitches. When one of us did something great, the other would send an email out about it. So the word would get out, but we weren't seen as conceited or self-promoting."
You need to meet so-and-so
If you're not up for the conversation crescendo, there are other strategies. Bianchini consciously focuses advocating for other women. To do that, she make sure that she knows the “goals, hopes and dreams” of her friends and colleagues.
“With my friends, we’re very clear about what our goals are,” though it’s not always the first impulse for women, she said.
If you know what people know and want, you can always have your eyes open for opportunities or connections that might help the other person along.
It’s often something as simple as meeting someone and saying ‘Hey, you should totally meet so-and-so,” Bianchini said.
“It’s something guys do all the time, but women have to be conscious of,” she said.
Works with 'male advocates'
In the While House example the Post cited, there were enough women among President Obama’s top aides that they could amplify each other.
For women who work in male-dominated workplaces, that’s not always possible.
Yesil says on more than three-fourths of the boards she’s served on she was the only woman. In those instances, she tries to connect with other like-minded men to agree to amplify each other. “It works with male advocates too,” she said.
Being aware that men often dominate conversations and meetings is the first step to changing it and giving women space to advance their ideas, said Serena Fong, vice president for governmental affairs with Catalyst, a non-profit that works to advance women in the workplace.
While men aren't necessarily doing it on purpose, it tends to be the way many of them communicate, she says.
“When you’re in a meeting, keep track of how many times people have spoken and if someone hasn’t, call on them. Or if someone’s talking too much, break in,” says Fong.
While there's not, quite, an app for all this, there is a program that helps quantify the problem.
Software engineer Cathy Deng created a simple timer that lets users to track how much time men and women are talking in a conversation.
Called Are Men Talking Too Much?, it's available on the web.
The counter makes it easy to track when "a dude" and "not a dude" is speaking and then add up the minutes to compare.
Deng said it works on the theory that "what gets measured gets managed."
Elizabeth Weise covers technology from San Francisco for USA TODAY. Follow her @eweise
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