Stay In Your Lane? A Guide For Women Leaders to Speak Up and Out

What if it’s best for you to not stay in your lane?

What if it’s best for you to not stay in your lane?

Sometimes you have to speak up when you know what you know. Take a stand. Create change. Because it matters.

Politics aside, the lessons in leadership emerging from the recent social media storm from the medical community responding to a scolding from the National Rifle Association for physicians to “stay in your lane” is reminiscent of what women have been told for generations at work and in the world.

Keep quiet. Do not make waves. These are dog whistle reminders for women leaders to “know your place.”

In their new book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, authors Joan C. Williams and  Rachel Dempsey, call this the Tightrope Balance, writing, “One New Girl, a former vice president at a Fortune 500 company, was coached repeatedly that she needed not to be so outspoken, and that she needed to be  less apt to call it the way it was.”

Women can be critiqued for being upfront, labelled difficult or “a big personality,” if they tend to speak out on issues and not politely or demurely stay in their lanes.

#WomenLeaders can be critiqued for being upfront, labelled difficult or ‘a big personality,’ if they speak out on issues and not politely stay in their lanes. What if it is best for you to not stay in your lane? #thisISmylane

Author and linguistic expert Deborah Tannen interviewed in Harvard Business Review, says, ”We have many influences on our style other than our gender. But there are tendencies that girls and boys tend to learn as kids playing in same-sex groups. Girls tend to talk in ways that downplay their authority. If they talk in ways that play up the fact that there may be a leader in the group or that they think they’re good at something, the other girls will criticize them. She’s bossy, she thinks she’s something. She’s stuck up.”

Tannen continues, “That can press with the way boys tend to maintain their position in the group. Talk up what they’re good at; maybe even make it into a game where they’re trying to top each other. And the leader of the group is someone who tells the others what to do and gets it to stick. If we move into the workplace, a person in authority has to tell others what to do. And frequently, women will find ways to do it that doesn’t seem too bossy, that downplays their authority.”

Indeed, Yolanda Zhang writes of research supporting that supposition in Huffington Post. A study of 400 children that was published in the journal Science shows just how early things change. The group of originally five-year-old boys and girls all thought of themselves as ‘brilliant.’

Zhang writes, “A year later, at age six, girls started to characterize themselves differently, no longer identifying themselves as being brilliant or having the capacity for brilliance. Not surprisingly, the boys continued to identify as ‘really, really, smart.’ The longer-term effects of these characterizations are that girls are less likely to pick ‘smart’ careers, such as science, math or technology.”

The penalties for speaking up can be ostracization, failure to get a promotion or even firing. But the benefits of knowing when and how to speak up on key issues can be a change of culture and policy change in the work place, as well as serving as a role model for other women.

In her book, Talking From 9 to 5, Tannen writes, “Women are more likely than men to downplay their confidence in a decision, more likely to apologize even when they don’t do anything wrong and less likely than men to boast of their achievements.”

The cost, then of staying quiet and staying in your lane may be the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Speak out when it is important. You do need to know what your “lane” of expertise is, and not venture into unfounded commentary on projects and areas you know lit to nothing about. But in matters that affect you and others in the organizations, be sure you are forthright and direct. Don’t comment on every area all the time, comment when it matters. And if you are the leader telling others on your team to speak up, be a guide.

The cost of staying in your lane may be the risk of becoming irrelevant. #SpeakOut when it is important.

Jill Flynn, founding partner of the consulting firm Flynn Heath Holt, says in HBR, “You don’t just say to someone, Speak up more. You say, Now, we were just in a meeting and you didn’t say anythingI know you have some ideas, talk to me about this idea that we were discussing in the meeting. And they’ll say it and you say, Say it to me again in more succinct, don’t use all the acronyms or whatever. OK. Good. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to hear you say in the meeting. Also, managers, if they’re in the meeting, they can call on the person. What do you think, Amy? Amy you’ve got some ideas on this, what do you think? This is one of the main things men can do; any mentor can do for younger people, men or women.”

Respect the current order. But also ask questions. For instance, don’t go straight to the chairman of the board with a complaint or critique without running it by your supervisor or the next person on the chain of command. But also do not sit in silence on things you believe are fundamental. As Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president  of Take The Lead, says in her 9 Leadership Power Tools, “Define Your Own Terms—First, Before Anyone Else Does.” Feldt explains, “Whoever sets the terms of the debate usually wins. By redefining power not as ‘Power-Over.’ but as ‘Power-To’ we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone. ‘Power-To’ is leadership.” You can be effective and not irritating if you couch your suggestions with authority and blamelessness.

Create an environment where speaking up is a good thing. By stressing inclusion of all voices and rewarding those who make strong, positive contributions, regardless of gender or position, a gender gap in leadership may narrow. And women will be less likely to be penalized for being forthright.  A recent study from the University at Buffalo School of Management aggregating 59 years of research, encompassing more than 19,000 participants and 136 studies from lab, business and classroom settings found “the gender gap in societal pressures contribute to gender differences in personality traits. For example, men tend to be more assertive and dominant, whereas women tend to be more communal, cooperative and nurturing. As a result, men are more likely to participate and voice their opinions during group discussions, and be perceived by others as leaderlike,” according to Science Daily. “For managers, the researchers suggest promoting the value of communal behaviors in performance evaluations, prompting quieter individuals to share their ideas and being mindful of any unconscious biases you or your staff may have.”

By stressing inclusion of all voices and rewarding those who make strong, positive contributions, regardless of gender or position, a #gendergap in leadership may narrow.

Of course, to stay in your lane is necessary when competing in track and field, for instance. It implies you are disciplined and respectful of the other runners.

But staying in your lane can also be a quest to keep you silenced and small. Contribute your input when it can be helpful or improve a situation, particularly on larger policy issues that affect you. A better phrase would be to understand who you are, and put on your directional signal to notify others that what you have to offer is valuable.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.