M13.1Hydra (1)

In ancient Greece, a nine-headed snake called Hydra lived in the marshes of Lerna. She was the daughter of a giant and a nymph, and the sister of Sphynx, Cerberos, and Chimaera. Again and again, Hydra ravaged the fields, destroyed the crops and devoured the cattle of the local farmers. At last, King Eurystheus asked the Greek hero Herakles to bring Hydra’s reign of terror to an end. A horrible battle unfolded in the marshes of Lerna. Every time Herakles cut off one of the serpent’s heads, two new ones grew from the ghastly body.

The gender bias women face when they speak in public are cultural and organizational, deeply embedded and frequently unconscious. I picture the gender bias like the Hydra Lerna, the swamp Serpent monster with the nine heads. Each time we try to eradicate one head, two more springs forward. We try to eradicate « upspeech », we find out about « vocal fry » and too low-pitched voices. We are left powerless, lost and confused. How should we sound? How should we behave?

We are expected to be conforming to feminine roles (nurturing, caring, soft-spoken), while displaying authority, which creates a double-bind effect. I call that the Goldilocks effect for women and gave a TED talk about it in Stuttgart.

Studies after studies…they all end up with the same pathetic conclusion for women: whatever we do, we are doomed to be wrong. As soon as we open our mouth, we are criticized for sounding « nagging », too high-pitched, having a whiny voice or just the opposite, too direct, too masculine.
The only way out seems to be to « monitor » our behaviors and even, as a new study suggests, to send « warnings » just before « saying something harsh »!!!!
Just imagine! Makes it a little more complicated when you are already struggling to find your own voice…

The latest study I am mentioning was conducted by corporate training company VitalSmarts and found that participants rate women who come across as angry or critical as 35 percent less competent and worth $15,000 less in pay than women who are less aggressive. Wow!
When a harsh comment was prefaced with phrases such as

I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively

backlash was reduced by as much as 27 percent, researchers said.

The study lends further credence to the theory that people judge assertiveness more harshly in men than in women, but it’s worth noting that drawing attention to bias seems to lessen it.

Clearly, the unseen barriers women face when they speak in public need to be made visible to all, and unless we do that, nothing will ever happen.

Unless we do not start by giving ourselves the permission to be heard, be seen and stand in the arena. Even if that means we will be judged because we won’t be perfect. Because we won’t please everybody. Because we won’t « fit in ».

So we need to find a way to eradicate this rampant nuisance from the workplace.

Let’s have a look at how Hercules achieved that:

First, Hercules lured the coily creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, though, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules’ foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! To make matters worse, the hydra had a friend of its own: a huge crab began biting the trapped foot of Hercules. Quickly disposing of this nuisance, most likely with a swift bash of his club, Hercules called on Iolaus to help him out of this tricky situation.

Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra’s heads, Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of the neck. The flames prevented the growth of replacement heads, and finally, Hercules had the better of the beast. Once he had removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, Hercules chopped off the ninth, immortal head. This he buried at the side of the road leading from Lerna to Elaeus, and for good measure, he covered it with a heavy rock.

Now, what can we make of this bloody metaphor? My purpose is not to duplicate the Herculean task and transfer it to a female Hercule in the corporate world. It would be adding more destruction and hatred. How can we do this peacefully and mindfully?

When I read this, I thought we could get some inspiration from 2 major insights.

First insight: the moment of « bringing the light » to the hidden creature. It is about bringing awareness to unconscious biases, primarily in the business world.

The other insight is the moment of calling upon the help of allies.

It will require a double approach, and the corporate heroine will have to find an ally like Hercules did with Iolaus. This cannot be done without the cooperation of champions, probably men champions who will eradicate and cauterize the wounds. Men champions and sponsors who will « hold the torch ». Who would be these men? According to Catalyst Inc, 3 categories of men are likely to be champions for gender diversity:

Men who get the business case

These are men who deeply understand that business results improve with women at the top. They have a reason to develop, promote and champion women. For some, the desire for their organization to excel is enough. For others, the reward must be personal. There is nothing wrong with WIFM (what is in it for me?) Some will be motivated by the higher bonus, approval from the boss, job security or promotion that may accompany better team outcomes.

Men who have experienced being an outsider.

In most workplaces, women remain minorities at the upper levels. Unintended and unconscious mind-sets can make it more difficult for them to succeed. Two of these are the “comfort principle” and “unconscious images.” Men who have been excluded by these unconscious attitudes often take a personal interest in diversity and inclusion. So do men who have someone close to them who has experienced discrimination.

Men with daughters.

Once men have daughters, they often become supporters for women in the workplace. They do not want their own daughters negatively affected by the comfort principle or unconscious images. Barriers that had been invisible before are seen. They have a personal reason to take on the challenge of removing them.

Now, a little wrap-up from this Greek mythology inspired Strategy:

  • First, we need to recognize there is indeed a gender bias = to bring it into the light make it visible. Trainings, conferences, books, articles, studies, workshops and programmes designed to bring public awareness on gender bias in public speaking for women. My Workshop, Women on Stage is providing exactly that.


  • Secondly, we need to  debunk the myths about women and public speaking, one after the other. Same as above, including of course Women on Stage :-), combined with executive coaching, MOOCs, corporate trainings, etc…


  • Finally, we need to find allies to hold the torch. Men champions and sponsors.While we are relentlessly fighting the gender bias hydra, we also need someone else to hold a torch, by our sides,  and make sure the operation is cauterized  and repeat the operation for each of the 8 heads…

I will keep you posted on my progress…But my intuition tells me that the only way out is  via cooperation between men and women.

What do you think? I would love to hear your reactions and comments. Have you met men champions? Did they fall into one of the three categories described by Catalyst?  What did they do? How did they stand up by your sides?

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