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Women need to speak up at work, not just listen

Leaders are often told they will be more successful if they spend less time talking and more time listening in conversations. But on Harvard Business Review blogs, venture capitalist Whitney Johnson says that for women, it's usually the reverse: "Most women are pretty adept at listening, but when it comes time to speak, we tend to falter."

It's not simply a case of having your ideas heard. It's also a matter of learning. Ms. Johnson says studies by the National Training Laboratories in Maine show that when we listen passively, we retain 5 per cent of what we learn, but when we participate actively, we retain 90 per cent.

Women's failure to talk doesn't happen only when men are around, she says. It happens, in a sense, when just women get together. Although they do talk, the topic is their personal lives rather than talking shop. Sure, men talk sports when they get together, but she argues that's the appetizer, while the meal is about the deal: "So, women, let's use our time wisely. We can talk about shopping, but if we don't also talk shop, let's call each other out. What better, safer place to practice sharing our expertise than with other women?"

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In meetings, she believes men enter ready to talk – they banter with each other, for example, coming in the door – while women come to listen. She suggests an activation process at the start, where everybody speaks for a minute or two, so that women perceive themselves as contributors, not passive listeners.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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