During a meeting between the corporate marketing team and business development group at a company I was researching for my book, Tempered Radicals, several people were talking at once about a potential acquisition. A few times a new member of the marketing group offered her concerns about distributing the new business's products outside the country. People continued to talk as if she hadn't said anything. Ten minutes after her last attempt to raise the issue, one of her senior colleagues voiced the same concerns. Everyone stopped talking and turned their attention to his issues. All of a sudden these concerns were the focus of the conversation, and the man who voiced them led the discussion. The woman stayed silent.
Jake, one of the managers in business development who preferred not to make waves, just couldn't believe that no one else was aware of what had happened. Never so blatantly had he witnessed the silencing of a woman—as it happened, an Asian American woman. After a few minutes, he stepped in and said, "I just have to understand something here. Can you explain why this issue is so important and why the one Carol raised ten minutes ago was not worth talking about? I just want to understand this."
Questioning a statement or asking for clarification of a behavior, as Jake did, is one effective way to name what is going on. Sometimes calling attention to people's behavior can change it. At least it makes them aware of what is really happening and makes it clear that their actions have consequences for others. Carol could have done the same on her own behalf, but it would have been riskier in most circumstances, and may not have had the same impact.
In this situation, Jake had the advantage of not being seen as personally invested in this incident; thus he was able to play a critical role in turning the encounter and challenging what was going on. The position of third-party bystander can be an incredibly powerful place from which to intervene and make a difference on behalf of others, providing that the intervention does not further silence or subordinate the wronged individuals. There are probably men in your workplace who are unaware this dynamic is taking place, who would be willing to assist. Ask for their help.
About the Author
Debra E. Meyerson is the author of Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Troubleand Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, both published by Harvard Business School Press, and coauthor of the widely circulated "Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling," Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2000. She is associate professor at Stanford’s School of Education and faculty at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. She can be reached at