How Obama’s female staffers make sure their voices are heard in meetings

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Harriet Hall
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The story of how women in business struggle to make themselves heard, is one we’ve read about, been told about, and lived ourselves for as long as human kind has walked the earth. We know that, for example, when meetings are made up of 15% women, men consider the split to be 50-50, and when they're made up of 33% women, men consider them to have dominated the meeting. We know that women who speak up are labelled bossy, shrill, and other pejorative terms, and eventually they’re just interrupted.

But we don’t entirely know how to overcome this. While Sheryl Sandberg had advocated for Lean in methods, others have suggested this places responsibility on the individual women.

Now, senior women in the White House have spoken out about how they have made their voices heard, using a technique they call ‘amplification.’

In an article for the Washington Post, several senior West Wing Women have spoken out about the difficulties of being heard in the Oval office. While Obama’s closest aides are now equally divided between men and women, but in the early days – during Obama’s first term- only one third of top aides were women, and many struggled to get their voices heard.

“If you didn’t come in from the campaign, it was a tough circle to break into,” says Anita Dunn, ex director of White House communications.

“Given the makeup of the campaign, there were just more men than women.”

So the women decided to develop a technique in which to be heard. Amplification became the standard practice. When a woman made a point in a meeting, the other women would echo it, thanking the first for her idea, and expanding on why it was a good one.

The move was so powerful, that the men in meetings could only listen, and were unable to claim the ideas as their own.

A former, anonymous Obama aide told the paper:

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing.”

Eventually, The President noticed and started calling on women and juniors more frequently.

Now, says White House senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, things have improved vastly:

“It’s fair to say that there was a lot of testosterone flowing in those early days. Now we have a little more oestrogen that provides a counterbalance.”

The technique is taken from the Shine Theory, which posits the idea that ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine.’

Rather than seeing other women as rivals, Shine Theory proposes that, in order to climb the ranks, women should see successful women as team members. Surrounding yourself with other, successful women, helps you both shine brighter.

Now that’s the true meaning of Sisterhood.


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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.