Hear Me Now?

After facilitating an introductory workshop on cultural intelligence, one of the CEO’s had a question for me. She told me that she holds listening circles at work so she can be sure her employees feel valued and engaged. And as an organization, they also regularly survey their employee’s attitudes about work.

At one point, when she was feeling so overwhelmed by all the input she was receiving in the listening circles, she stopped holding them. The following month’s survey scores dropped.

So, she started holding the listening circles again and watched as the following month’s scores went back up. However, the CEO was still overwhelmed by all the problems she was hearing because she couldn’t solve them all herself. When she realized it was too much, she delegated some of the problems to her staff.

Soon the staff became as burdened as she was – even resentful of her. Like her, they already had their own work to do! They didn’t need more.

When the CEO shared the story with me, she was at a loss as to what to do. She genuinely wanted to hear people’s concerns but couldn’t manage all the problems.

The problem

I told her I understood the struggle of wanting to show people compassion and yet feeling helpless that we can’t solve their problems. And it’s especially hard for those in leadership positions.

Because I wanted to respect that I was working in a secular environment, I asked the CEO if she’d mind if I shared a story about what I learned in my African American church. She didn’t mind, so I told her the story of what Elder Darline taught me.

The story

A visitor showed up at church one morning, a lady with misshapen head and dirty smelly clothes.

During fellowship time at our church, people greet each other with hugs. When I saw the lady, she initially repulsed me, and I didn’t want to embrace her at all! But because I wanted to honor the culture of my adopted church, I leaned in for a hug and held her tight. The lady responded by putting her weight on me and groaned with appreciation.

Then I ducked out quickly to visit the restroom before the sermon started. When I came out, the lady was sitting on the bench outside the bathroom sobbing. Elder Darline was with her. Darline asked me if I would sit with her while she went to get water for her. I had the same reaction as before; I didn’t want to be with this lady. But again, I wanted to honor our church culture, so I followed my elder’s instruction. I sat and held this lady. When Darline came back, we both sat and held her while she cried and related her story of abuse.

I was overwhelmed with thoughts of what we, as a little walk-in closet-sized church, could do for a lady so desperately in need. Meanwhile, Darline acknowledged her fears and patted her back. When she finished her story, Darline told her own story about experiencing abuse.

Darline said, “Do you know what you need to do?” The lady shook her head. “You need to forgive yourself and those people.”

I said, “Darline isn’t saying those people are off the hook for what they did; they’ll get their due. She’s saying to forgive for your sake.” The lady was quiet and thoughtful; she nodded in agreement.

Darline asked me to find a protein bar for the lady to eat. When I returned, the lady was quietly listening to Darline. I sat back down, put my arm around the lady and continued to follow Darline’s lead. In the meantime, another church member had found some used clothes in her trunk for the lady.

While both women were with the lady, I left to reassure my family about my whereabouts. When I turned around to go back, I saw the lady sitting in the last pew singing and praising along with the rest of the congregation. I was blown away by the transformation. She was freshly clothed and joyful. So I sat back down and continued celebrating with my family.

That afternoon, I called Darline to learn how she knew what to do. How was she not overwhelmed by the situation? I confessed that I had honestly thought there was nothing we could do for her; we just didn’t have the resources. Darline said she didn’t know what to do either but knew the lady would know what to do if we showed compassion and understanding. Darline reminded me that neither she nor I were going to save the lady; the answer was always within her.

The CEO was quiet and reflective. She told me that she had had the impression that she was supposed to solve all the problems.

I explained that in hierarchical contexts like her workplace, people of majority culture often unconsciously share a characteristic of being the people in-the-know. Because they tend to be the knower, rather than the learner, they don’t listen well and attempt to fix other people’s problems. However, if they adopt an attitude of learner, they can listen and trust that the answer, or at least a next step, is within the other person.

How to show compassion

In my Empowering Partners‘ workshop we define compassion and describe the steps for demonstrating it. The word comes into the English language by way of the Latin root “passio”, which means to suffer and is paired with the Latin prefix “com” meaning together. Compassion means “suffer together.” Compassion involves three elements:

  1. Noticing
  2. Feeling
  3. Responding

Step one: Noticing

We can slow down, check to see that we’re safe and notice the feelings of the other person.

Step two: Feeling

Feel your feelings. And acknowledge the feelings of the other person as legitimate. Because we all have a desire to be understood, it can be hard to focus on another person’s feelings if we haven’t acknowledged our own emotions first. (In other words, if we see our own humanity, we can extend it to another.)

Step three: Responding

When we notice an emotion and feel it, we can show compassion by responding with labeling the emotion we notice. Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. Labels almost always begin with roughly the same words:

  • It seems like…
  • It sounds like…
  • It looks like…

For example, we might say…

  • It seems like you’re inspired.
  • It sounds like you’re confused.
  • It looks like you’re angry.

Notice we say, “It sounds like…” and not “I’m hearing that…” The word “I” gets people’s guard up and says you’re more interested in yourself than in them. A more neutral statement of understanding such as “it seems like your angry” encourages the other person to keep talking.

If they disagree with the label you give, that’s okay. They’ll probably just clarify their feeling. And we can always step back and gently say, “Thank you for helping me understand.”

What happened

The CEO thanked me; she said she hadn’t realized she didn’t need to solve everyone’s problems. She felt more prepared for her listening circles especially now that she’d made the connection – it’s more compassionate to listen, learn and trust that the answer is within the other person.

In many cultures, including the United States, it takes just four seconds before silence becomes awkward. So, often our temptation is to rush in and fill that silence with talking. However, in culturally intelligent conversations, we come to appreciate another person’s perspective and are able to adapt our words to show respect across cultural differences when we notice, feel and respond with compassion.

Our collective well-being develops one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. Those conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody. The key to greater collaboration, productivity and profit rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued and heard within the organization.                      -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Epic Remedies for a Cultural Fail

“So, does this mean you don’t report people who are breaking the rules?” a CEO asked. The question was prompted by an NBC News report: ”An author reported a Metro worker for eating on a train. Now she might lose her book deal.

The author in the headline, Natasha Tynes saw a uniformed Metro worker eating on the subway train, even though Metro rules state that eating is not allowed on trains. Tynes confronted the Metro worker who then told her to mind her own business.

Tynes posted a shaming tweet with the Metro worker’s picture on Twitter. Other Twitter users replied saying that Metro workers don’t really get time for meals, creating a backlash against the author. Despite the fact that she apologized and deleted the Tweet, Tynes’ publisher saw the backlash and canceled her book deal.

Both Tynes and the Metro worker are people of color. The irony is that, in this new media environment of ours, a misstep can destroy a person’s livelihood. To understand why and how this situation became so destructive, we need more information about how people can effectively navigate cross-cultural conversations.

Background information

In a previous blog post, “There’s Nothing Common About Vocabulary,” I explored how developing a common vocabulary builds trust and shared-understanding, which leads to greater collaboration, productivity and innovation in an organization. I explained that one of the best ways to develop a common vocabulary is for a leader to start with the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) developed by Dr. Mitch Hammer.

The IDI, a 50-item on-line inventory, assesses an individual and group’s ability to effectively navigate cross-cultural conversations. This is done by measuring five core mindsets and associated behaviors for engaging diversity and creating an inclusive environment. The five core mindsets include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance or Adaptation.(2)

Five stages of cultural intelligence

The early stages of Denial and Polarization are mono-cultural mindsets.

  1. People and groups in Denial are committed to their own cultural values and practices and may not notice biases and deeper cultural patterns. When Denial is present in the workplace, people from diverse backgrounds often feel ignored.(2)
  2. People and groups in Polarization tend to be overly critical of cultural differences from an “us versus them” viewpoint. When Polarization is present in the workplace employees hear phrases like, “this is how we do things around here.” As a result, people can feel uncomfortable because cultural differences are seen as an obstacle or inferior.(2)

A mono-cultural mindset produces an assimilationist approach to staffing where minority talent is expected to fit into a workplace largely defined by the dominant cultural group. In that kind of workplace, assimilation can take the form of “sink or swim” for new hires. Leaders with this mindset typically assume new hires can figure out how things are done in an organization, “just like they did.” This can have negative consequences; individuals with diverse backgrounds can be left feeling ignored and uncomfortable, experiencing a sense of bias because their contributions go unrecognized.(2)

Minimization is the transitional stage from a mono-cultural to a multicultural mindset.

  1. People and groups in Minimization value commonalities and de-emphasize difference, resulting in a lack of deeper understanding of cultural differences. With a Minimization mindset, leadership tends to use a universalist approach by focusing on the elimination of bias through common policies that assure equal opportunity for all. While this can improve cross-cultural relationships, this mindset does not value diverse perspectives or how to bridge across cultural differences. As a result, minority perspectives and experiences are typically not fully heard, impacting collaboration and innovation.(2)

The later stages of Acceptance and Adaptation are multicultural or global mindsets that support cross-cultural understanding.

  1. People and groups in Acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences. However, they can be unclear about how to appropriately adapt their words and behaviors to cultural differences. When Acceptance is present, people with diverse backgrounds feel “understood.”(2)
  2. People and groups in Adaptation can appreciate different perspectives and adapt their words and behavior to another’s cultural context. When Adaptation is present in an organization people feel valued and engaged. Domestic and international diversity are valued as resources for multicultural team effectiveness and everyone is seen as a source of cultural intelligence.(2)

What can be done differently

The mindset of Adaptation, or a willingness to understand the complexity of the Metro worker’s situation and the ability to adapt one’s words to appreciate another’s cultural context, was missing in the Twitter interchange. Had they applied cultural intelligence, the author, Metro worker and publisher all would have done better.

  • When the author saw the Metro worker, instead of making it public on Twitter, she could have gone quietly to the Metro authorities and shared her observation that the organization doesn’t appear to have a good plan for a meal breaks for their workers.
  • The Metro worker could have said, “I get 20 minutes to eat on my meal breaks in transit and it’s not enough time. I’d appreciate if you’d speak up on my behalf.”
  • Tyne’s publisher did the very thing online trolls accused the author of doing to the Metro worker: threatening and possibly destroying her livelihood. Rather than reacting, the publisher and author could have collaborated on how to respond compassionately to the Metro worker and her situation.
  • The Twitter users who centered the backlash against Tynes assumed that, because the Metro worker is a person of color, the rules don’t apply – or perhaps assumed Tynes wasn’t a person of color and was being racist. For whatever their reason, they amplified their own assumptions. They too could have slowed down and learned more about the situation before contributing to the domino reaction of shame, blame and punish.

We need to recognize the charge of delight we get from “being right” and feeling “superior.” That feeling can lead us to act on snap judgements, victimizing others and jeopardizing our own wellbeing online.

After getting caught up in the rush of being right, we get defensive when we learn we were out of line. Being alert and practicing cultural intelligence, we can notice the impetus to get caught up in such feelings; we can instead slow down and consider the impact of our actions. We can ask ourselves: Is this for the greater good or just meeting a personal need?

What a leader can do

Along with utilizing the IDI® to assess our organization’s ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations, here are a few questions a leader can reflect on to determine if there is a need for more cultural intelligence:

  • How many people with different backgrounds have been hired across senior leadership, management and staff?
  • What areas of the organization are less diverse than others?
  • Are opportunities for continuous learning that builds cultural intelligence offered, particularly for building cultural self-awareness and awareness of the cultures being served in our marketplace?
  • Have learning experiences resulted in conversational and behavioral change so that everyone involved benefits?
  • Does affinity bias show up in hiring decisions?
  • What patterns of attrition do you see in the organization and what’s happening in those areas?

Many people don’t realize that two-thirds of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® world-wide are unknowingly stuck in the middle stage of Minimization. As a result, there is often strong pressure for people with diverse perspectives to conform to the dominant culture, which can result in people feeling unheard and excluded, and productivity and innovation getting blocked. And ultimately, those conditions can affect the bottom line.

But when an organization intentionally embraces the perspective of alternative cultural views and actively attempts to increase the repertoire of cultural vocabulary and behavior, domestic and international cultural differences are seen and used as an asset for the organization as a whole.


  1. By Janelle Griffith (May 12, 2019) “An author reported a Metro worker for eating on a train. Now she might lose her book deal, ” NBC News: https://apple.news/ADXd72a8SQOGONMxgNIj41w
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.

WoManifesto: The Backstory

“Should I make myself Director of Design on the robotics team? Am I qualified?” asked my youngest daughter who is in high school. It was so cool to be able to share some of the research with her. Did you know men typically apply for jobs if their skills match just 60% of the job description; whereas, women think their skills need to match 100% of the job description?(1) So then I asked her if she felt she was at least 60% qualified.

Being great at rendering technical and creative drawings, she said, “Absolutely.” I asked her to reconsider her question. She not only decided to take the role of Director of Design, she encouraged other girls to join the team. She ended up recruiting enough girls to create a girls’ team within her high school’s larger previously male-dominated Robotics Team. And not only is she in charge of design, she is the co-lead of the girls’ team. Just from one person listening, recognizing and verbalizing another person as capable, a whole new productive and innovative team with new and specific market appeal was born in my kitchen.

In my blog post, “What’s a Guy to Do?” published last November, I explained how men can use their cultural intelligence to be allies for women at work. Last month, I published WoManifesto in the Workplace, where I explained how women can use cultural intelligence to progress at work. Since beginning this journey on how to unleash the full potential of our workforce to be more productive and innovative, the question for me has become how can we as parents, grandparents, mentors, colleagues and friends of girls and young women use cultural intelligence to help girls and young women become innovators and leaders in reality and amid current cultural norms?

For example, when someone says “leader,” “inventor,” “politician,” “scientist,” do we picture a man or a woman? How do we move our culture so we see both? These are the practical and implementable lessons my year-long personal journey on this question as a business leader and a mother has taught me. If our company employs women, why would we not want to get their full productive and innovative power in this generation as well as generations to come?

The very same day that I published, “What’s a Guy to Do?” my business strategist texted, “I think this is the best blog you’ve written yet! Now, what about the women? Considering it had taken two months to research and write about how men could be allies, I could only imagine what I’d have to learn to write a blog on behalf of women. Little did I know the impact it would have on my family.

With the naivete that often accompanies a new concept, I thought, “I’ll let the people at VoteRunLead.org teach me how to help women find their voice.” VoteRunLead is an organization that trains women to run for office and win. This extraordinary organization has trained more than 33,000 women and plans to have trained 1.2 million by 2020. During the interview, it became clear there was a lot I didn’t know about the systems that keep women silent and subordinate in the workplace. So, I set aside the transcript until I’d figured out next steps.

The book

Weeks later, I told my sister about the interview I’d done and blog I was considering. She said, “Before you write that blog, I think you might want to read the Soraya Chemaly’s book, Rage Becomes Her.” Before I knew it, she’d ordered the book and sent it to me as a holiday present. Some gift! Now I had to read it! It was a thick volume, no light read. I pathetically avoided it for weeks.

In January, I relented and started reading. For the first time, I was getting in-depth exposure to the realities of the system under which women have survived and continue to live. It took two months to work my way through her book.

It was a pivotal for me to learn that, “every girl learns, in varying degrees, to filter herself through messages of women’s relative cultural irrelevance, powerlessness and comparative worthlessness.”(2) (p 8) It’s no wonder that, “women are prone to what’s called imposter syndrome, which is characterized as insecurity about their abilities, and feeling less competent, prepared, and accomplished than their peers. They are less likely to believe they ‘deserve’ good things, including the rewards for their work.”(2)

As a woman and mother of four adult children, three of whom are young women, I was initially appalled to consider how I’d been complicit in a system that intentionally and inadvertently communicates worthlessness to our daughters. It was becoming personal; I wanted to do better.

I learned that one of the ways my husband and I’d been complicit was by interrupting our daughters. Studies show that parents interrupt their girls at twice the rate they do their boys. (2) That reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias we face—the one underlying all the others—is the message that women are inherently less worth listening to than men.

That’s borne out in the medical profession. Chemaly’s explains, “Studies in implicit bias consistently show that most people, including, importantly, medical professionals of all genders and ethnicities, have a difficult time taking women’s pain seriously.” In one study that looked at abdominal pain, women waited roughly 15 minutes longer before seeing a doctor in emergency rooms, and it’s worse for women of color.(2)

It was depressing to become aware of such statistics about women, but what broke my heart was learning from a friend that she’d been sexually assaulted throughout her childhood and how it impacted her ability to relate to men. Sexual assault is a criminal offense, and the law also recognizes sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) reports that between 2005 and 2015, women made eight in ten sexual harassment charges to the EEOC. Among women, black women were the most likely of all racial and ethnic groups to have filed a sexual harassment charge.

Research suggests that only a small number of those who experience harassment (one in ten) ever formally report incidents of harassment—let alone make a charge to the EEOC—because of embarrassment, fear of retaliation or a lack of accessible complaints processes. Fear or reporting is justified since 71% of sexual harassment charges in FY 2017 included a charge of retaliation.(3)

Workplace harassment results in substantial costs to companies, including legal costs, employee turnover, and costs related to lower productivity from increased absences, lower motivation and commitment, and team disruption. A U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board study from the early 1990s estimated the economic costs of sexual harassment to federal government workplaces over a two-year period at $327 million.(3)

My family gets involved

Wanting to get to the root cause of this workplace disruption, I read feminist Andrea Dworkin’s poignant 1983 talk given at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men, “I Want a 24-Hour Truce in Which There Is No Rape.” I read it aloud with my husband and son.

My husband and I realized that we needed to recognize out loud, as a family, what women have to do on a daily basis to protect themselves, for example when walking alone at night through a parking lot or across a college campus. Until then, our 19-year-old son hadn’t realized the lengths to which his mom, sisters and female friends go every day to protect themselves.

This awareness resulted in conversations about how our younger daughter needs to be more alert for her own safety and our son needs to learn how to be an ally for women on his university campus. Activist Jackson Katz’ illustrates in his TED Talk, “Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue,” how men can use their power to speak up and be a bystander to create a peer culture where demeaning women is unacceptable.

It was later in the summer that the blog I didn’t think I could write came back to mind. And considering what I was learning, I understood why I had been so intimidated about writing a blog to empower women.

Until I began this intentional research, I hadn’t seen the cultural system that keeps women feeling left out and pushed out. I had fallen into the same trap many of us do. In fact, two-thirds of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® world-wide are unknowingly stuck in the developmental stage of Minimization.

The danger is that people in the developmental stage of Minimization tend to assume all people, regardless of the minority group they represent, have the same experience.(6) And because we want equality and fairness, thinking this is best achieved by treating everyone essentially the same, differences between individuals and minorities are not recognized—even de-emphasized, sidelining and silencing women.

Without acknowledging women’s unique perspectives and seeing them as an asset, companies will not realize the value their diverse voices promise—because they won’t hear their voices. The global workplace nonprofit Catalyst found that, “companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales (ROS) by 16% and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26%.”(7)

What parents, grandparents, mentors, colleagues and friends can do

Because we are entrenched in our cultural habits, we don’t see our own biases. Had I not been researching the subject, I wouldn’t have known how to coach my daughter. For example, Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, “found that 23% of girls and 40%t of boys preferred male political leaders instead of female, while only 8% of girls and 4% of boys preferred female political leaders.”(8) At a school-age level that translates to inadvertently granting more power to boys and less leadership opportunities for girls on school councils. Because our bias is so pervasive, I wondered what else parents, grandparents, mentors, colleagues and friends can do to help their children to become leaders. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Check our own biases. Because biases are so ingrained, question daily messages in the media of what is expected from females and males. Expose children to images that contradict stereotypes. Watch our language, for example use the term “firefighter” instead of “fireman.” Ask kids to give us feedback if we are modeling stereotypes or expressing bias. It can be challenging to receive this kind of feedback; however, even if circumstances don’t allow for a change, the conversation can be empowering.(8)
  2. Engage our kids in making our homes “bias-aware.” Proactively start family conversations about how responsibilities get divvied up in our family. Take advantage of children’s sense of fairness and discuss what is fair and balanced rather than making assumptions about who does what based on gender. We can periodically ask our kids whether they think family practices are gender-biased, if there are different expectations for males and females and how they could be made fairer. Parents can share stories of how they’ve seen roles evolve in their lifetime.(8)
  3. Help kids kick stereotypes. Kids learn from the adults in their lives how to recognize bias in themselves and others. They also learn how bias and stereotypes can get in the way of getting to know other people. Ask kids to watch for unfair images of themselves and others. Create a list together of gender stereotypes seen and heard. Talk about how stereotypes make people feel, and as a result, can get in the way of getting making new friends.(8)
  4. Don’t accept that “boys will be boys.” Just because it’s an old adage doesn’t make it helpful or truthful now. Too often boys’ demeaning language and remarks about girls go unchecked because we don’t know what to say. Talk about real honor and strength. Point out to boys the false bravado in demeaning girls and people that are different from them and strength in defying one’s peers when they devalue people. Talk about commonly used words to describe girls and why they’re offensive, even when they’re “just a joke.” Brainstorm strategies with boys for talking to their peers about this denigration that won’t cause them to be spurned or ridiculed.(8)
  5. Grow girls’ leadership skills. To contradict negative images, expose girls to exemplary leaders. Discuss how their interests and passions align with different types of leadership. Develop skills: encourage opportunities for public speaking and debate. Have them participate in family decision-making processes and discuss how to take action at school around problems they’re concerned about.(8)

Chemaly taught me that, “women cannot, by themselves, remedy this situation. We can, however, deliberately and methodically set out to grow people, build families, communities and institutions and societies that take our [women’s] concerns seriously and recognize what happens to us is important. Not because we are enraged or suffering but because we are valued.”(2)

With cultural intelligence we can appreciate others’ perspectives even if they are not like our own and adapt our behavior so that each of us feels valued and heard. Employee safety and belonging is the means to an end: that of greater productivity, innovation and profit in every organization. –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

1. Mohr, T (Aug 23, 2014) “Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified.” Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified
2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books.
3. Shaw, E., Hegewisch, A., Hess, C. (October 2918) “Sexual harassment and assault at work: Understanding the costs.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research: https://iwpr.org/publications/sexual-harassment-work-cost/
4. Bindel, J. (April 19, 2018) “Why Andrea Dworkin is the radical, visionary feminist we need in our terrible times,” The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/16/why-andrea-dworkin-is-the-radical-visionary-feminist-we-need-in-our-terrible-times
5. Katz, J (May 29, 2013) “Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue.” TedTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJxUVJ8blw&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1G2BTMutEy8k6adQ7FAA4yJtf2ydayCJv9xYX5xmAmkoSMYCdTh7NnS4U
6. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
7. (2013) “Why diversity matters.” The Catalyst Information Center: https://www.catalyst.org/system/files/why_diversity_matters_catalyst_0.pdf
8. Joyce, A (July 28,2015) “Are you holding your daughter back? Here are 5 ways to raise girls to be leaders.” The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/07/28/are-you-holding-your-daughter-back-a-harvard-psychologist-gives-5-ways-to-raise-girls-to-be-leaders/

WoManifesto in the Workplace

Meryl Streep, in her 2010 commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College, explained that in high school, a different form of acting took hold. She wanted to learn how to be appealing to boys. She recalled, “I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and 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 are of something he doesn’t know, is a survival skill, this is how women have survived through the millennia.(1)

If women have survived by pretending to be someone else in order to be heard and recognized, organizations are missing out on a lot of talent. This means they’re missing the opportunity for innovation, productivity and profit that is already present in the talent pool and just waiting to be tapped.

Organizations that cultivate cultural intelligence enable people to navigate conversations across differences of identity and culture including those of gender. This increases employee safety and belonging as the means to an end for more productivity, innovation and profit in every business.

How we got here

In her book, Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly writes, “We learn as girls to read faces and other body indicators, and we develop tactics for lowering the temperature of encounters, a process known as de-escalation. The ability and inclination to take this approach is supported by socialization and the practical reality that women are often physically smaller than the people threatening them.”

In the face of threat, we often learn that the “normal” physiological response is flight-or-fight. But that’s a “normal” if you’re a man. While women, too, experience faster pulses and elevated blood pressure, our bodies produce different chemicals which lead to “tend-and-befriend” responses.(2)

The cultivated feminine habit of prioritizing the needs of others and putting people at ease frequently puts women at a disadvantage and can be perceived as weakness. Layered on top of these habits of de-escalation is a pervasive silence around the fact that women are constantly making these assessments. This leaves the men around us at home, school and work often unaware of this constant adjustment women have to make.(2)

Men’s influence is popular media

Men’s dominance is also apparent in popular media. Books, movies, game and popular entertainment feature men and boys 2-3 times more often as protagonists, more often white than not.(2) And men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films, as well as a majority of the speaking parts and creative and executive positions on-screen and off. 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 day-to-day lives. Studies indicated parents interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys. Observations of children on playgrounds also show that despite girls’ earlier language acquisition, by age six, boys dominate chatter – with teacher encouragement.(2)

Both men and women are more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women than they are boys and men. One of the studies of legislative deliberations shows that women need to constitute a super majority, or roughly 70 percent of a room, in order to achieve parity and influence. If they don’t, they have a difficult time being perceived as powerful, influential, or important speakers.(2)

How this impacts women

This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias we 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 on women as subterfuge and self-denial tend to do, and we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(5)

This message takes its toll on organizations. Without acknowledging women’s unique perspectives and seeing them as an asset, companies will not realize the value their diverse voices promise. The global workplace nonprofit Catalyst found that, “companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales (ROS) by 16 percent and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26 percent.”(6)

And beyond that to diversity in general, “companies reporting the highest levels of diversity brought in nearly 10-15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of diversity.”(7)

The trap

Ironically, what gets in the way of that diversity-fueling success is a well-intentioned desire to be fair. We want equality and fairness, and we often think this is best achieved by treating everyone essentially the same at work. We do this because people in the developmental stage of Minimization – who actually represent the majority of the US population – tend to assume we all have the same experience. We don’t realize that two-thirds of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® world-wide are unknowingly stuck in this middle stage of cultural development.(8).

And because we 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 different perspectives, including women’s. As a result, we’re often blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out. This is opposite of cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to shift perspective and adapt behavior to navigate conversations across cultural differences, such as gender, so that each of us feels valued and heard. In a previous blog (What’s a Guy to Do? written in light of the #metoo movement), I explained how men can use their cultural intelligence to help women not only share their opinions and perspectives but also get ahead in an organization. So, what can women do?

Options for women

I wanted to learn what a woman can do and how an organization can ensure their employees and leaders feel valued and heard. I spoke with Ty Shaffer, Activist, Lead Graphic Designer & Social Media Manager at VoteRunLead.org, the largest and most diverse campaign training organization in the country. VoteRunLead trains women to run for political office and win. They specialize in helping women gain the resources and confidence to find their voice and take action – as campaign directors and community organizers as well as policymakers. The organization has trained more than 33,000 women and plans to train 1.2 million by 2020.

At VoteRunLead, Ty has learned that everything women go through in life is only heightened in politics – one of the most public professions. Because of that most fundamental bias-belief that women are inherently less worth listening to than men and the resulting internal dialogue of self-criticism–women often and inadvertently second-guess themselves.

Many women go to VoteRunLead knowing they want to run for but hesitate because of messages they get that they’re only qualified to be home with their kids, no one will take them seriously, and they’re either too attractive or unattractive. VoteRunLead does not teach women how to look or how to win over other people, but rather how to use their voice. Ty says, “Confidence is what makes people follow leaders.”

How women demonstrate that confidence

Women can:

  1. Find a mentor. Studies show that 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 their mentees get high-profile assignments. So much of what gets you noticed at work is who you know and who sings your praises.(10) Don’t be afraid to shoot higher than you should — senior executives often love sharing their wisdom with others, and they’ll respond really well to someone who asks simply, “Can I learn from you?”(11)
  2. Cultivate community. Because women are not the norm in the workplace or public office, they need people in their corner. Like men, women need validation; it’s important to have people around that lift women up. Nobody succeeds alone; we are all part of a much greater fabric. So it’s okay to look to others for help, but by the same token, don’t let anyone steal your power and make your story theirs.(11) Ty says, “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 our expertise. Give it time, do the research and you’ll discover how important your voice is. And Ty points out, “So often it’s women who live in both arenas, family and work, so they naturally have this unique perspective of understanding both spheres. As politicians running for public office or leaders in a conference room, that perspective needs to be heard.” Very, very often that perspective is that of our customer.
  4. Bring your whole 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 self-judgment necessary, just keep working on it. Ty explains that by sharing their truth and expertise, women gain trust.
  5. Develop your voice. Come prepared to all 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’re free to make eye contact with others in the room when the opportunity arises to speak. Positive self-talk can help.
  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. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on their minds. Women could go a long way toward addressing the problem of timing and feelings of isolation if they sounded out colleagues and built 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 the ongoing conversation.(11)

As Meryl Streep articulates, women have survived through millennia by pretending to be someone else. As a result, organizations are missing out on tremendous opportunity for innovation, productivity and profit that is already present within their talent pool and waiting to be tapped. But because our culture has buried women’s voices so well for centuries, even women don’t always realize they have internalized it. Cultural intelligence enables us to shift our perspective and adapt our behavior to ensure everyone’s voices are heard. Employee safety and belonging is the means to an end for more productivity, innovation and profit in every organization.


  1. Streep, M. (2010) Tips and Inspiration for Achieving Success, Barnard College Commencement Speech: https://www.graduationwisdom.com/speeches/0069-streep.htm
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics
  4. MeToo.: https://metoomvmt.org/
  5. Quindlen, A (2012). Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. New York: Random House.
  6. (2013) “Why diversity matters.” The Catalyst Information Center: https://www.catalyst.org/system/files/why_diversity_matters_catalyst_0.pdf
  7. Herring, C (2009). Does diversity pay? American Sociological Review, Vol 74, Num 2: https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr09ASRFeature.pdf
  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: https://hbr.org/2014/06/women-find-your-voice
  11. Chatzky, J (1 Aug 2018) How to find your voice at work (and use it), according to these female CEOs,” NBC Better: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/business/who-are-you-how-5-female-ceos-found-their-voice-ncna895901#anchor-Ilearnedtoembracemyownauthenticity