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The Silenced Female Leader

Posted by Carrie Arnold, Ph.D., PCC | July 18, 2019 | Comments (13)

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.

carrie arnold headshot

Carrie Arnold, Ph.D., PCC

Carrie Arnold, Ph.D., PCC, is the Principal Coach and Consultant for The Willow Group, located in Denver, Colorado, USA.  She is an Institute for Social Innovation Fellow, and her research focuses on the voice of female executives.  Carrie speaks to audiences across the USA on what it means to be a silenced female leader and ways to heal from the phenomenon and leverage a voice with currency.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (13)

  1. Beautiful piece, Carrie. Important and eloquently stated. Thanks so much for this.

    ~ Steve

  2. Jennifer says:

    Great article. While I agree that this happens more frequently to women than men, I think this can also happen to men depending on the culture and environment they are in. The same tactics can be applied regardless of gender.

    • carriearnold@willow-group.com says:

      I agree Jennifer. My post doc research was only with executive women, but I have a lot of men sharing that they believe the male experience may be similar.

  3. Lisa R Withrow says:

    I appreciate this blog-essay. I am currently making a job change because I found the push-back from two other leaders became deeper and more defaming as I stopped accepting silencing behavior. In our current society, such defamation and workplace hostility is now deemed acceptable by examples found in the public media sphere. It’s good to know that there is conversation occurring about this huge problem.
    – Lisa

    • carriearnold@willow-group.com says:

      I agree Lisa – public and political rhetoric has become very course. I do not think we are going to see silencing behavior diminish, thus the conversation is necessary and how organizations respond is a critical step to ensure female leaders are heard.

  4. Carrie, I stumbled on this by accident, or not. As a former executive, now executive coach, what you articulate so perfectly is my story, the experience I overcame, and what I now frequently coach women through. I passionately believe we have to understand silencing and provide the tools to overcome it, if gender parity is ever truly going to become a reality.

    • carriearnold@willow-group.com says:

      Thanks Anita – I think having a new frame of understanding helps women put their experience into perspective. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Sarah Happel says:

    This is a wonderful article, Carrie. You bring up important points for us as coaches – we need to be in tune with what silencing can look like on all fronts. Keep up the great work.

  6. Anna says:

    Inspiring and thoughtful words Carrie! Definitely we need to develop more female leaders in every workspace. It should start with awareness, training, motivation.

  7. Thank you Anna. I believe awareness is the most critical.

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