Speaking Up – A Follow-Up to PASS Summit 2013 Women in Technology Panel Discussion

At yesterday’s Women in Technology Luncheon panel discussion, several panelists spoke about the importance of speaking up when we encounter bias, prejudice, discrimination, and harassment and the likelihood that silence in such situations will be perceived as implicit approval of inappropriate language or conduct. However, the discussion unfortunately did not cover one of the major obstacles to speaking up against bias, prejudice, discrimination, and harassment. Often, a power differential exists between the person responsible for the inappropriate language or conduct on the one hand and the target of and witnesses to it on the other, and this power differential may cause witnesses to be reluctant to speak truth to power. If, for instance, the boss is responsible for the inappropriate language or conduct, employees may hesitate to speak out against it for fear of negative repercussions in their employment.

So how can we find the courage to speak up against bias, prejudice, discrimination, and harassment when we are on the weaker side of a power differential, i.e., when we run a risk of negative repercussions for doing so? I think there’s guidance in the research of Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu, who studied communication between airline captains and first officers. Fischer and Orasanu observed that a “status difference” exists between captains and first officers and determined that this status difference affects how the pilots communicate, then investigated how this status difference affected the effectiveness of various forms of requests for corrective action when one pilot makes a mistake.  They found that the most effective communication strategies were those that appealed to the pilots’ shared responsibility to cope with a problem, neither rely on the status difference to ensure compliance nor threaten the status of one party to the communication, or both. These strategies included hints, preference statements, suggestions, and obligation statements.

I’ll explain each of those strategies with an example of how an employee may employ them if the employee hears the boss using an ethnic slur. A hint points to a problem without specifying a corrective action – “You know, many people consider that word offensive.” A preference statement is simply that – a statement of the speaker’s preference, again without specifying the corrective action – “I’m uncomfortable with that word.” A suggestion specifies a corrective action without insisting that the other comply, thereby appealing to a sense of solidarity: “We could use the word ______ instead.” An obligation statement specifies a corrective action and makes reference to an external necessity, again appealing to a sense of solidarity: “We should avoid using that word so that we don’t discourage good employees from joining our team.”

I think these strategies make it possible to communicate opposition to bias, prejudice, discrimination, and harassment from the weaker side of a power differential without provoking a confrontational response that could both preclude any change for the better and bring about negative consequences for the speaker. By equipping ourselves with these tools, we will prepare ourselves to speak up effectively against injustice. Otherwise, it’s all too likely that we’ll be silenced by our own fear.

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