The Silenced Female Leader
Imagine an executive leader has hired you as a coach to help her with issues that stem from lacking confidence, managing conflict and being more decisive.
When you do your intake, you learn the following.
She has worked hard to get the corner office, has a Ph.D. and has two decades of industry experience. She is in that mid-50 age range, allowing her to reconsider what she perceives to be necessary and relevant, as well as a genuine acceptance of self. She now has a salary with benefits that permit things impossible in earlier years. This is the time to appreciate that she knows how to manage, compete with men in knowledge and technical abilities, contribute in meaningful ways, and strategically lead. She can now think about transformation and explore vertical development and broader ways of viewing her world. Imagine all this is true, but you discover after several coaching sessions she also feels silenced.
How is it possible that a leader could achieve such high levels of education and leadership and then experience the phenomenon of silencing? It is a paradox as leadership implies a sense of purposeful voice and efficacy. However, voice can falter; it can become muffled, suppressed or muted.
Despite a woman’s level of authority, coaches need to listen for and build distinctions around voice and silence and how they project outside the coaching session. Executive women can feel silenced from a 360 perspective. They also experience silencing by their own gender, or by systems that do not favor her approach.
I describe female leader silencing as a virus, and it can last months or years. Coaches need to look for these distinctions when working with executive women:
- Choices that seem restricted – A lost sense of agency
- Deficit thinking – Despite knowledge and experience, wondering if she deserves a seat at the table
- Mental spin that seeks a different outcome – Questioning all the ways she could have said or acted differently
- Emotion – Hearing she feels abused, taken advantage or dismissed; wondering when the next attack will come
- Shocking metaphors – I’m getting eaten alive; I am out on a limb alone; it feels like I’m taking in arsenic
- Isolation – Unable to name her professional support system or connections
- Physical domain – Shrinking posture, holding herself or shifting voice quality; these may signal her body is reacting to the insidiousness of silencing
- Spiritual confusion – When you attempt to build client awareness you hear,– I do not even know how I got here, or, I am so far from the person I used to be.
Our job as coaches is always to create an invitation for exploration and growth. We may need to look past the initial coaching objectives and go deeper into areas our clients have been reluctant to name or untangle. They sometimes lump issues and problems together as a “stressful challenge.” We may need to ask, “Would it be helpful to share with me how you feel silenced?”
We need to listen for the story of who or what silenced her, how it happened and the impact it’s had on her leadership. Exploration may take several sessions, and coaches must be patient as she identifies the previously unspecified. When executive women self-silence or feel egregiously silenced by relationships and systems, it is difficult to recover in place while leading. My research suggests less than 25% will be successful. It is also true that many women opt-out or make a job change, but a change alone does not bring voice recovery. Often women transition into new organizations but continue to lead in a silenced state.
Silencing is a nuance that needs more considerable attention, and coaches are positioned to shed light and provoke new conversations that shepherd healing. Statistics for women in leadership paint a dismal picture, but coaches can partner with their clients in impactful ways that help them recover voice. As you work with your female executives, consider:
- Naming silencing when you believe it might be part of the challenge or narrative
- Seeing if she can describe her silencing from different perspectives
- Prompting her to talk about the effect of isolation and how it has impacted her domains
- Exploring her willingness to go outside her organization, to build a community of peers who appreciate and understand her context (this is critical for recovery)
Society is ravenous for leaders who inspire parts of the soul called to make a difference. Given how few female executives there are, women need to communicate their purpose and vision in secure, powerful ways. It is necessary they enlist followers and build team rapport while driving work forward. It is essential they have a consistent, purposeful voice that carries organizational currency. Coaches can be a catalyst for this work.