In her 2010 commencement address at Barnard College, Meryl Streep said that she did a very different kind of acting back in high school. It revolved around being appealing to boys.

“I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits; I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness – even shyness if you will, which was very very, very effective on the boys.“

Why did she take on that role? Streep explained that successfully convincing someone bigger than you about something they don’t know is a survival skill – this is how women have survived through the millennia.(1)

If women survive by pretending to be someone else in order to be heard and recognized in their organizations, those enterprises are missing out on a lot of talent. They’re missing opportunities for innovation, productivity and profit already present in the talent pool and waiting to be tapped.

In my blog post, The Difference a Great Man Can Make, I explained how men can use their cultural intelligence to be allies and help women advance at work. The next questions are…

  1. What hinders women from getting ahead in our culture?
  2. How can women use their cultural intelligence to advance themselves at work, assuming their work environment is open to it?

What hinders women

We learn as girls to read faces and other body indicators. We develop tactics for lowering the temperature of encounters, also known as de-escalation. The ability to de-escalate is supported by socialization and the practical reality that women are often physically smaller.(2)

In the face of threats, humans learn that the “normal” physiological response is flight, fight or freeze. That’s normal if you’re a man. Women too experience faster pulses and elevated blood pressure, but their bodies produce different chemicals that lead to de-escalating and tend-and-befriend responses.(2)

The cultivated feminine habit of tending to the needs of others and putting people at ease can put women at a disadvantage because it can be perceived as weakness. Layered on top of these tendencies is the social pressure on women which Streep alluded to: shifting their behavior to keep the peace. This leaves even the best-intentioned men around us at home, school and work unaware of the almost constant adjustments women are making.(2)

Men’s influence in popular media

On top of that, men’s dominance is apparent in popular media. Books, movies, games and music lyrics feature men and boys two-to-three times more often as protagonists. For example, men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films. That gender breakdown in films is equally skewed in other countries.(2)

The fact that men garner twice as much speaking and screen time applies equally in our workplaces and day-to-day lives.

Studies indicate that parents and teachers interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys. This isn’t only true for children. A study of legislative deliberations shows that women need to constitute a super majority, roughly 70% of the room, to achieve parity in influence. If they don’t, they have a difficult time being perceived as powerful, influential or important.(2)

How this impacts women

This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias women face – the one underlying all the others – is the message that women are inherently less worth listening to than men. This message takes its toll as subterfuge and self-denial tend to do. And we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism and self-loathing – not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(5)

That message takes its toll on organizations too. Without acknowledging the unique perspective of women and seeing them as an asset, companies lose out on the value that diverse voices promise. “Companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least in return on sales by 16% and return on invested capital by 26%.”(6)

The cultural trap

People’s individual actions don’t come out of a void though, they reflect a larger system, the culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900-’93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2)

To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we can recognize a particular mental model in play within our culture: minimization. Fully 66% of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence, the stage called “Minimization.”(3) The percentage is that high because it’s the default mindset of the dominant culture – of an organization as well as of a society as a whole.

Because they don’t want to go against cultural norms and upset a status quo that favors male voices, leaders inadvertently silence and sideline dissenting opinions and differing perspectives, including women’s. As a result, we can be blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out.(3) This is the opposite of cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate a person’s perspective and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect across cultural differences, including gender. It enables everybody in the room – in any space – to feel safe expressing themselves. But to genuinely appreciate another person’s voice, we need first to appreciate our own.

How do we appreciate and advance ourselves in a culture that diminishes and dismisses our voices and teaches us to do the same?

How women advance

To learn how women advance, I spoke with Ty Shaffer at, the largest campaign training organization in the country. They train women to run for political office and win. Ty explained that because of that most fundamental belief – women are inherently less worth listening to than men – women often inadvertently second-guess themselves, undermining their confidence. VoteRunLead doesn’t teach women how to look or win people over, rather how to use their voice with confidence because confidence is what makes people follow leaders.

Where confidence comes from

Self-confidence comes from self-awareness. We may think we know ourselves well, but if we’re feeling self-criticism or self-loathing, there’s a good chance there’s more to learn. When we’re seeing ourselves as either good or bad, the takeaway tends to be harsh judgment rather than reality. That’s how we end up second-guessing ourselves.

To upend the second-guessing, S.T.O.P.:

  1. Slow down,
  2. Take a breath,
  3. Observe the noise of self-criticism as well as your own feelings,
  4. Proceed with curiosity and wonder.

With observation, you get greater perspective. With curiosity and wonder you hold feelings tenderly, as you would a puppy and then let them teach you. That’s what allows your feelings to move on or through.

When you STOP, your gaze softens. You see more of reality, your humanity – all your messiness and beauty in there together. In that quiet moment there’s room to notice your hopes, desires and entirely legitimate needs.

Self-awareness leads to self-knowledge, which is how self-confidence quietly comes on line. Here is one person’s journey from self-awareness to self-confidence.

But there’s more

Self-confidence is what gives women the courage to counter the cultural tendency to diminish their voice. Along with this inside work, here’s how women advance…

  1. Find a mentor. People with mentors are likelier to get promotions. Mentors show women the ropes and help them navigate office politics. They introduce them to decision-makers who help mentees get high-profile assignments. (10) Don’t be afraid to shoot higher than you would think — senior executives often love sharing their wisdom and often respond well to someone who asks, “Can I learn from you?”(11)
  2. Cultivate community. Because women are often not the norm in the workplace or public office, they need people in their corner. Like any other group of humans, women need validation; nobody succeeds alone. It’s good to seek support and, by the same token, own your unique story. Don’t let anyone steal your power and make your story theirs.(11) Ty said, “To unlearn any false narratives imposed by society, create one huge support group.”
  3. Believe in your mission. Own your expertise. Claim your title. And if you’re not yet completely sure, know that your passion becomes your expertise. Give it time, do the research on your passion and you’ll discover how important your unique voice is. Ty said, “So often it’s women who live in both arenas – family and work – so they naturally have this unique perspective of understanding both spheres of life. That perspective needs to be heard whether it’s by politicians in office or leaders in a conference room, because very often that’s the perspective of the customer.”
  4. Bring your authentic self. To really get to know yourself, try doing a mental review of your workday every night, especially if things have challenged you or made you uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “Was I doing my best and acting in accordance with my personal values today?” If so, that’s a source of strength; if not, no judgment necessary – just keep working to be true to your values. Ty said, “By speaking up and sharing their truth, experience and expertise from their unique perspective, women gain trust.”
  5. Develop your voice. Come prepared to meetings. Know what you’re there to discuss, and if you have something to add, speak up. If needed, give yourself a pep talk before the meeting, and memorize a couple of your talking points so you feel free to make eye contact with others in the room when the opportunity arises to speak. Positive self-talk helps.
  6. Build allies. While research shows that female executives are very efficient, arriving to meetings on time and rushing off to the next meeting, men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. So consider arriving at meetings early to get a good seat and chat with colleagues. Stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on your mind. Women can address feelings of isolation when they sound out colleagues and build allies by attending the pre- and post-meetings, where much of the real work happens. Informal conversations can help clarify the true purpose of a meeting, making it much easier to take an active part in an ongoing conversation. (11)

Because our culture has buried women’s voices so well for centuries, even women don’t always realize they have internalized the belief they’re not worth hearing. Cultural intelligence is what enables us to change that perspective and recognize our own and others’ unique voices as invaluable assets. Employee safety and belonging is the means to an end for more engagement, productivity, innovation and profit in any organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

To learn more tools, take my online course, Awkward to Awesome. Discover two tools in each of the six 30-minute sessions to bridge divides and generate more productivity, engagement and commitment in any workplace and community. Hosted by Maryville University.


  1. Streep, M. (2010) Tips and Inspiration for Achieving Success, Barnard College Commencement Speech:
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
  4. :
  5. Quindlen, A (2012). Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. New York: Random House.
  6. (2013) “Why diversity matters.” The Catalyst Information Center:
  7. Herring, C (2009). Does diversity pay? American Sociological Review, Vol 74, Num 2:
  8. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  9. Interview with Ty Shaffer. (Jan 2018)
  10. Heath, K., Flynn, J., Hold, M. (June 2014) “Women, find your voice,” Harvard Business Review:
  11. Chatzky, J (1 Aug 2018) How to find your voice at work (and use it), according to these female CEOs,” NBC Better:
  12. Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash