What is Silencing? (And Why Your Company Must Care About It)


Although the labor force is more evenly split between men and women, men and women are not equally using their voices. As a female leader, you may have experienced a phenomenon called “silencing.” Dr. Carrie Arnold says feeling silenced as a female leader is a “unique and widespread leadership issue impacting millions of women in the workforce.”  

Arnold, who has done extensive research on the topic, says that silencing leaves women feeling "muted, suppressed or muffled" and unable to express themselves. As a leader, this can introduce substantial barriers to upward mobility.

How Are Women Being Silenced?

As a female leader, how many of these silence-inducing situations have you experienced?

  • Deliberately exclusion from meetings

  • Lack of responsiveness to your requests or emails

  • Public and private criticism or controlling behavior

  • Dismissive comments that question your expertise because of your gender or role

  • A system that reinforces a predominantly male view of leadership

Arnold says that women can be silenced by both peers and supervisors, and equally by men and women. She also cites "systems of privilege" that silence women — for example, systems that favor one style of leadership over another or that favor certain groups or affiliations. A woman may even silence herself when "she has a perceived locus of power that is outside herself."

What Are the Consequences of Silencing?

Silencing reduces a woman’s effectiveness as a leader and can alter her career trajectory.

  • Silenced female leaders become disengaged, viewing their situations as no-win.

  • Only about 25 percent recover their voice without making a job change or opting out of a leadership role.

  • Even when they opt out of leadership or change jobs, only about half of the women fully recover from their silencing experience.

  • When women silence themselves, they often opt out of leadership.

  • Silencing takes a cognitive, emotional, spiritual and (for many) physical toll with digestive or respiratory issues and full-body stress.

How Can We Address Silencing?

The first step is for companies to better understand the phenomenon of silencing. This is critical given that companies with women in the C-suite are more profitable and a higher percentage of U.S. companies had no women in senior leadership compared with five years earlier.

Recovery from silencing requires community and self-care.

Arnold says that female leaders who have been silenced need relationships with other women who understand what they're going through and who have experienced similar things. She adds that a woman may need to look outside of her company to find this community.

Silenced women can also heal by helping give a voice to others. "As she becomes aware of those who are also silenced in her organization or community, she seeks to not further silence," Arnold writes. "She finds voice by becoming a role model and a sponsor for women."

Whether you are woman who has experienced silencing or a leader who wants to stop silencing at your organization, please read Arnold's white paper on the issue. I also invite you to explore my products and services that cultivate the potential of high-performing women. Organizational leaders may be especially interested in the facilitated version of my award-winning WOW! Women On the Way to Peak Performance Program℠, which helps women build community as they learn.