SELF-CENSORSHIP: LET’S GET RID OF OUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS!

For the past twenty years, the glass ceiling paradigm has been attributing women responsibility for a part of professional inequalities by pointing their self-censorship habits. Though, few scientific studies have provided significant proof of the idea that they “dare” less!   

For the last ten year, the debates around self-censorship have been almost all forced in a biased and fragmented vision:  

  • For too long, the subject of self-censorship has been reduced to a “women issue”, as if women were the only ones concerned. But can’t we imagine that self-censorship is the result of a stigmatization effect of the group to which one belongs?
  • The self-censorship topic has also been reduced to endogenous causes (that is to say personality), and essentially to a lack of self-confidence. Women would censor themselves because they lack self-confidence. That would make them responsible for their self-censorship and as a consequence, to the glass ceiling. QED! 

Isn’t this conclusion a bit too quick to draw? Haven’t we skipped the step that would consist in verifying these two postulates? In other words, can men also feel concerned by self-censorship? And can we self-censor ourselves even when we feel confident with our self-image? 

The consulting company Alternego has developed a questionnaire that was submitted in 2019 to 4 companies from different professional sectors (automotive, technology, real estate and communication) in order to produce factual data on this issue of self-censorship. The study has a total of 1,492 responses for a sample that we analyzed according to four variables: gender, hierarchical position, age and sector of activity.  

WHAT ARE THE MAJOR RESULTS? 

1. A self-censorship that concerns women… AND men!  

The respondents were asked whether they felt they were censoring themselves or not, without mentioning any criterion related to this self-censorship. 40% of women… But also 35% of men confirmed that they felt concerned! Globally, about 38% of employees say they censor themselves. This says a lot about the loss of energy and potential that this represents on a company-wide scale.  

2. Hierarchical status is THE major cause of self-censorship 

Well beyond socio-demographic criteria (age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), hierarchical position is the primary criterion causing self-censorship, for nearly 75% of respondents who declared to be censoring themselves. That is to say that we censor ourselves more because of the weight of hierarchy than any other reason that constitutes our social identity. 

3. Systemic self-censorship 

Respondents were asked about the explanatory causes of their self-censorship. Contrary to generally accepted idea that self-censorship is explained by endogenous causes, the respondents in the study referred primarily to exogenous causes of self-censorship: “I self-censor because I have the feeling that my request will not be heard” and/or “I self-censor because I have the feeling that I will not be supported in my request”.  

Respondents thus have the feeling that their self-censorship is mostly related to inter-individual relationships. Conversely, lack of self-confidence and doubts about one’s skills come at the end of the list of perceived causes of self-censorship.  

4. Sexism is an aggravating factor 

In two companies in the study, we asked nearly 300 women about the feeling of sexism they experience in the company and we correlated it with the feeling of self-censorship. The results show strong correlations between all the indicators. Indeed, women tend to censor themselves more when they are subjected to sexist jokes (+0.40 correlation index), when they are exposed to sexist or sexual language (+0.44) and, above all, when they don’t receive the same consideration as men (+0.51). We can therefore assume that the experience of a sexist climate contributes to nurture self-censorship.  

CONCLUSION: 

To improve individual wellbeing and collective performance, companies must fight against all forms of self-censorship, among both women and men. It is necessary to support those who are victims of self-censorship by increasing their skills and, if necessary, by an intelligent coaching… But more than anything, it is necessary to create the conditions for an open management, which allows contradiction, debate and innovation. But the first thing to do -and quickly!- is to stop telling women that they censor themselves because they lack confidence in themselves… This is the best way to make it happen!  

Valentine Poisson & Patrick Scharnitzky

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