New Eller College Research Examines How Women Can Get Their Voice Heard At Work

Elizabeth McClean


In a time when women are beginning to take on more leadership roles in the workforce, it is still unclear whether their ideas and suggestions are being heard equally as their male counterparts.  

Recent research conducted by Elizabeth McClean, assistant professor of management and organizations in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, explores how and if gender might affect idea endorsement in the workplace.

The act of an employee speaking up is called voice—communication of suggestions, ideas, concerns or opinions—with the aim to improve organizational or unit functioning.

“Higher levels of employee voice have been linked to better unit performance and less turnover,” says McClean. “Yet to realize these benefits, ideas for change need to be acted upon.”

And one action that makes change possible is endorsement—to administer attention and resources for said idea.

“Since gender is one of the most salient status characteristics affecting a person’s ability to be influential in the workplace, it is critical to examine how it impacts which ideas are being endorsed,” says McClean.

Drawing upon Expectancy Violation Theory (EVT), McClean argues that unexpected ideas—meaning those that are stereotypically associated with the opposite gender—are more likely to be endorsed, compared to expected ideas—meaning those that are stereotypically associated to the speaker’s gender.  

After conducting a field study and two experimental studies, McClean found that idea endorsement doesn’t necessarily depend on who contributed an idea.

Instead, the study found that endorsement depends on the combination of who suggests the idea, what the idea is and how the idea is being presented.

Women have traditionally been told not to be assertive in the workplace and men have been told not to be communal, but McClean’s research shows that when suggesting ideas for change, women who spoke up agentically (i.e., suggesting changes to work tasks and using confident language) got their ideas endorsed more than those who spoke up in a more stereotypical way (i.e., suggesting changes related to work relationships and in a tentative manner). Similarly, men who spoke up communally (i.e., showing concern for relationships using tentative language) got their ideas endorsed more than when they spoke up in a stereotypically agentic way.

“Our findings offer a glimmer of hope for both women and men who defy gender stereotypes in a positive way when speaking up,” says McClean.

This study was conducted alongside doctoral candidate at the Eller College Sijun Kim and Tomas Martinez from Austin Peay State University with the hope that more research will be conducted that examines how men and especially women can better get their ideas heard.  

This research is forthcoming at the Academy of Management Journal.