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How To Speak Out At Work Without Being Labelled 'Bossy'

Women are often afraid to speak up at work for fear of being called over-opinionated.

08/07/2016 4:15 AM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:56

For many of us the thought of speaking out in a work meeting is even more daunting than talking to a stadium full of strangers. With our work colleagues, we don't want to risk being labelled 'over opinionated' or worse (over confident or 'too up herself!').

Some work environments are more comfortable than others. But many people work for organisations where the culture means that people are left open to ridicule or their difference of opinion is not seen as valued.

Author Tara Moss told The Huffington Post Australia there is a persistent, often very disparaging stereotype that 'women talk too much.'

In 1993, linguistics researcher Deborah James and social psychologist Janice Drakich reviewed 63 studies about the amount of talk by men and women in various contexts and found that in 61 of the studies men talked more.

"Not all women, not all men, not all conversations, but nonetheless, this makes the claim that women talk too much seem particularly curious. It is precisely this sort of stereotype, however, which is used disparagingly against women when they do raise their hand in a meeting or assert themselves," Moss said.

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Author Tara Moss is passionate about helping women find their voice and 'speak out.'

"The key is to be aware of these unconscious biases, which exist in both men and women, to speak out and participate, and also support other women when they do. We can choose not to participate in this tradition of interrupting or dismissing women when they speak up."

Moss has specifically addressed the issue in her book Speaking Out, which is a 21st Century handbook for women and girls.

She said the fear held by many women that speaking out will find them labelled 'bossy' or worse, is not entirely unfounded.

Moss cites an example from a 2012 Yale University study looking at male and female US senators that found a strong positive relationship between power and volubility in the men. But there was no such link in the women.

"Instead, the women were found to 'incur backlash as a result of talking more than others – an effect that is observed among both male and female perceivers.' In other words, the male senators were rewarded for speaking out, as it reinforced the sense of their power and importance. Women knew they were more likely to be 'rewarded' with backlash and did not speak as much. Likewise, studies show that women are, on average, interrupted and cut off more often than men," Moss said.

Michelle Gibbings

Change Management specialist Michelle Gibbings told HuffPost Australia it's important for women to stand in their conviction and think about how the conversation is going to play out in terms of the different perspectives that might be shared.

"If you know your content and you know your stuff, be confident to put it forward. But the confidence often comes from being prepared for how the conversation will play out," Gibbings said.

"It's all about preparation and practice. In my early days in the corporate world, I was nervous about speaking out. But I found the more I spoke out, the more I overcame that fear. The more I spoke up, the more confident I became about putting forward my perspective."

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The more you speak up in meetings, the more confident you will become.

Gibbings' tips:

  • If you've got a big boardroom meeting, don't be the person sitting at the end on the corner who is not really part of the conversation. Sit somewhere so you're part of the conversation and can introduce yourself to people as they arrive.
  • If you already know people and know their names, it's easier to manage the conversation because you can speak directly to the room.
  • Don't turn up late and flustered.
  • Be prepared. To overcome the fear, you need to speak more and then you will become more confident.
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