As a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, I often found myself saying to my male colleagues, members of committees, and even to my own family, “I don’t feel like you are hearing me.” So when I read Juliet Eilperin’s article in The Washington Post this month, I resonated with the frustration these women feel. Even when some of the brightest women in our nation compose half of the President’s top aides, their voices are sometimes ignored, trampled or co-opted once they finally gain access to the Commander-in-Chief.
In order to counteract this tendency, the women staff adopted a strategy they called “amplification.” When a woman made an important point, other women would repeat it, crediting the original speaker. This had the duel impact of forcing the men (and some women!) in the room to recognize the speaker’s point, and preventing them from claiming the idea as their own.
An anonymous former female Obama aide shared this with Eilperin. The result of the amplification strategy? The President noticed and began calling more frequently on women and junior aides. Hooray!
However, this anecdote amplifies more than women’s ideas. It also emphasizes the reality that once a woman achieves a place in the room, a seat at the table, access to the President of the United States, or a position on the Council of Bishops, the struggle does not end. In fact, it may just be starting.
Women are being invited into more influential roles and places than ever before. However, a seat at the table does not guarantee a voice in the discussion. Women, whether they serve as the President’s top aides, board members of corporations and nonprofits, trustees for major colleges and universities, or leaders in churches, cabinets and boards of The United Methodist Church (or any other denomination), are sometimes drowned out of important discussions by hyper-aggressive colleagues. Worse yet, the ideas that they offer are sometimes co-opted by others in the organization.
The strategy of amplification is a valid and gracious method, not only for women, but for all participants, to honor a speaker’s voice. It is particularly useful in environments where emotions run high, expertise and egos are abundant, and time is at a premium. In fact, it is the most Christian manner of engaging in dialogue by honoring voices, even those at the margins, and assigning credit to the appropriate individuals. Remember the ancient commandment, “Thou shall not steal?” So, if you find yourself in situations where you feel your ideas are not heard, trampled over, or co-opted by others, adopting the amplification strategy might just work.
More importantly, this article reminds us that an invitation to the highest echelons of any organization does not necessarily guarantee someone, in many cases women, a voice. As we see more and more women gaining traction at the highest levels of our national and ecclesial organizations, it is wise to remind ourselves of the old African proverb, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Supporting one another with integrity and strength allows everyone the opportunity to be heard with equanimity and fairness. It may be the only way to support the many voices that have been invited to participate in the leadership of our nation and our church.