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Why are Some Women Still Afraid to Speak Up?

What are women afraid to show to others when they are showing up in life?

In observing the behavior of participants in meetings over the past few weeks, it is sadly apparent that too many women are still sitting on the sidelines observing others move issues forward or debate future actions. In one meeting, even women in positions of some power were less likely to speak up to contradict ideas that their faces gave every indication that they felt were wrongheaded. But if you get those women together outside of a mixed gender group, the energy and dynamics would likely be dramatically different as some would feel their confidence grow. This is disappointing in so many ways -- and it reminds us to remember that women’s right to vote has not yet celebrated its 100th year anniversary.

When women feel torn between speaking up or staying silent, there can be a million different reasons that play into their final decisions. Below are just a few of the forces that might keep some from sharing their wisdom or speaking up for others and themselves.


Some are reluctant to speak out for fear of hurting another’s feelings – even when they recognize they are firmly in the right. It’s the woman who refuses to respond with passion or commitment to issues about which she actually has strong feelings, just because being reserved is what she’s been taught that women are supposed to do.


It is disheartening to recognize that there are so many women with an inner light that shines brightly, but when given praise or their successes are noted, they turn their eyes to the floor and shake their heads in dissent. Modesty may keep some women from speaking up and speaking out, which contributes to the continuation of a culture in which women’s silence is accepted and, regrettably, still expected in some places.

Head in the Sand?

It seems some women refuse to speak up for or against an issue, be it right or wrong in their own perspectives. She may deal with drama or conflict by averting her gaze; it’s as if she goes beyond mere embodiment of the phrase, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” to go as far as not to see, hear, or speak at all. Something keeps these women back from staking a metaphorical claim -- which reflects poorly on their wisdom, their experience, and their value within a group.

Are there masks that you wear when in the company of colleagues? friends? family? Do you feel the need to take on a unique identity when with specific groups of people? When a woman is preoccupied with showing the world what she believes they want to see, it begins to obscure her own self-perceptions.

When the Mask is Removed . . . what do we find?

Who is the woman standing underneath the mask? Often, it is women who work too hard and say too little. And how do we encourage those who are silent too long to raise their voices?

I've led meetings during which female colleagues wonder aloud why it seems to be always women who are willing to volunteer to tackle urgent tasks or routine assignments that require a little more commitment or output than the norm.

I wonder, too, what it is about the willingness to grind through the mundane minutiae of some projects seems more palatable or "doable" by women than by men? Do women believe that they can rely on one another to get the job done and the task cleared off their plates because women tend to spend more time doing the "cleaning up" in life than men do? In marriages in which women earn more than men, they still spend more time on household chores -- clearly, gendered divisions-of-labor at home have translated into gendered divisions-of-labor on the job (Bertrand, Kamenica, & Pan, 2015).

While there are many settings where women have found their voices, there are still spaces in which silence is easier than dissent. It is beyond disappointing that there are still spaces in which men can show up "just as they are" and be confident that their words will find airspace, but women present may feel that they must put on armor to vie for equal time to share their own ideas.Speaking up and speaking out are skills that might require some practice before they become familiar. Encourage, make space, and invite the voices of all. Recognizing the value of one's time, energy, experience, acumen, and heart is not as easy for some as it is for others. It can feel risky to speak up in a group, but if you would be willing to put up your hand to volunteer for an assignment, be willing to lift up your voice -- its value is certainly equal to that of your hands, and likely even more valuable.


Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, Jessica Pan; Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households . Q J Econ 2015; 130 (2): 571-614. doi: 10.1093/qje/qjv001