Collaborating While Female

Last week, we were leading a session on how to solve for collaborative overload. As it happened, all the participants were women. Semi-jokingly, one said “I know how to reduce overload: have my male peers stop repeating me every time I make a comment.” Another commented that she consistently gives her time to others at the cost of her own priorities because she feels “guilty” and “selfish” about saying no.

The value of collaboration is produced by integrating multiple data points, perspectives and ideas to reach a better outcome than any individual can achieve on his or her own. In our work with teams, we find that collaboration happens most often through three modalities:

1. Meetings (in person, virtual, conference calls, etc.)

2. Independent deep work (focusing without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks such as data analysis, coding, design, writing, etc.)

3. Digital channels (email, chat, discussion threads, etc.)

The key to effective collaboration is to have the right balance between the three modes rather than defaulting to just one, and to have high-quality results across all of them. That’s hard to do under any circumstances, and as became apparent in that session last week, collaborating while female has some added challenges.


Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg teamed up to write the opinion piece, Speaking While Female. In it, they chronicle several studies that show we consistently undervalue the spoken contributions of women in the workplace.


It’s not just that women are interrupted more frequently than men, though that’s plenty problematic. It’s that their ideas, contributions and data are more likely to be discounted. Across environments as diverse as the television industry, politics and corporations there are similar patterns:

• Men who contribute good ideas receive higher performance evaluations; women who offer equally good ideas do not

• The more men speak up, the more helpful they are perceived; the more a woman speaks up the more likely she is to receive negative ratings

• Women’s data and insights are more likely to be discounted than those of her male counterparts, reducing the probability that the team will act on them

Deep Work And Digital Channels

Cal Newport is an author and professor who has studied the habits of exceptionally productive people. His work led to this law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = Time Spent X Intensity of Focus.

In his book, Deep Work, he makes a compelling case for scheduling blocks of time for distraction-free work. Doing so, he argues, equips you to assimilate complicated information, produce better results more quickly, and feel more fulfilled in your work. While we don’t always associate independent think time as being essential to high quality collaboration, it is a cornerstone. When individuals focus on key elements of a project independently and then bring a proposed solution to the group for consideration, the quality of the discussion is significantly higher than when everyone just comes into a room and tries to figure it out together.

The alternative to deep work is jumping from task to task: going from one meeting to another, responding to emails as they come in, fielding pings from other people, etc. The cost of this task switching is extremely high. When we move from one task to another, some percentage of our attention is on the prior task. This “attention residue” diminishes our performance on the task at hand. The more we switch between tasks, the greater the attention residue, the worse the performance.

Simply put: those who carve out 90 minutes of focused work time during the work day – and guard against distractions during that time – will get more done than those who do not.

And Here We See Another Gender Divide

Women are less likely to carve out time during the work day to focus on their top priorities because it feels selfish. But why would getting our work done feel selfish? In part because women and men differ on what it means to be a good team player: According to research, women are more likely to agree with the statement “being a good team player means helping all of my colleagues with what they need to get done.” In contrast, men are more likely to agree with the statement “being a good team player is knowing your position and playing it well.” While both perspectives are valid, they lead to different patterns of collaboration. For men, blocking the calendar is consistent with being a great team player. For women, blocking time can feel like just the opposite.

That instinct to be available to others has a double tax: Not only are women less likely to carve out time for their own work, they are more likely to give their time away. They are also more likely to feel guilty about ignoring a request or declining a meeting in order prioritize their own work. Social scientist Benjamin Voyer explains why that might be: “Guilt is an 'other-focused emotion' - an emotion that involves thinking about others, which research indicates is a typically a female trait.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: work slips into the evenings and weekends, which may be one of the reasons why women work on average 50 minutes more a day than men.

What To Do

Most of these patterns are the consequence of unconscious biases, assumptions and perceptions. The first step toward interrupting them is to elevate your team’s awareness and make it safer and easier for everyone to balance their time and attention. Here are 5 actions you can take this week:

1. For a few meetings, track the “talk time” and number of interruptions of various team members. Discuss the results as a group: Is talk time balanced? Do some team members get interrupted more than others? What do we want to do differently going forward?

2. Acknowledge the importance of deep work. Lead a team discussion about the priority currently being placed on “thinking time” and the most common barriers they encounter. Set goals for how much time each person should carve out and protect each week. Then track progress, address challenges, and keep at it.

3. Establish team norms about “do not disturb” signals: When is it “ok” to set IM status to DND? If you’re in an open space, what physical signal, such as headphones, can be used to say “I’m not available right now?”

4. Make it clear that it’s perfectly acceptable to decline meetings when your participation is not required, then celebrate those who do so.

5. Remind everyone that organizational time and energy are your most strategic assets. Explicitly and repeatedly empower everyone to use them wisely.

It’s extremely rare that someone deliberately shuts down a team member, takes credit for her good idea, or disrupts her precious focus time. Unfortunately, it still happens all the time. You can elevate the team’s performance (and the quality of experience) by taking these simple steps to disrupt the status quo.

  • Stop Meeting Like This

    47% of meeting time is seen as unproductive

  • Driven to Distraction

    Office workers check their inbox 30 times per hour

  • There, but not really‚Ķ

    Worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work