The Uneasy Truth in the ‘SNL’ ‘Say What You Want to Say’ Women-in-the-Office Parody
It's the type of TV commercial you've seen before. A depressed, overworked woman slumps over her computer keyboard while staccato piano notes accompany a comforting female voice-over: "Sometimes it's hard to make our voices heard." Cut to a contemplative woman in a business suit pondering her next move in the company break room. "We are taught to be polite, to be quiet." A determined-looking Dakota Johnson sits on a park bench as the solemn music takes a triumphant turn and inspirational text appears on the screen: "But we must be brave and say what we want to say."
The Saturday Night Live sketch is a spot-on spoof of feel-good TV ads aimed at women, and its hilarious premise is simple: Women say what's on their minds, confronting social and work-related situations with a brutal, liberating honesty rarely seen in on-screen female characters. The scenarios presented in the SNL montage are at times laughably mundane—a woman yelling at a total stranger to leave the public bathroom so she can use it in private, for example—but there's a lot of truth to the parody. Numerous studies suggest that sometimes it is hard for women to make their voices heard because of how they might be judged at work.
Female employees who voiced their opinions in the office were perceived to be less competent than women who kept their opinions to themselves, researchers at the Yale School of Management reported in a 2012 study involving 156 participants. Women who spoke out, professor Victoria L. Brescoll found, were often stereotyped as "domineering and presumptuous," whereas chatty men scored increased competency ratings in relation to their talkativeness.
Brescoll drew the same conclusion when participants were asked to rate male and female U.S. senators in relation to their talking time. She discovered that talking had a direct correlation to power for male senators but had the reverse effect on female senators. It's no wonder the women in the SNL skit are so liberated by simply refusing a coworker's invitation to a party or demanding to eat the whole cookie rather than just the half that's offered.
The gender stereotype doesn't just affect how men perceive women—it also impacts how women portray themselves, according to a 2014 Montana State University study that showed how women downplay their accomplishments. Nearly 80 female undergraduate students at MSU were asked to write a scholarship application essay either about themselves or as a letter of recommendation for a friend. Overwhelmingly, the essays written about others scored higher and were awarded more scholarship money than the essays written by a woman about herself.
MSU researcher Jessi L. Smith also found that women were more apt to brag about themselves when they "had an alternative explanation for why they might be feeling uncomfortable," which, in the case of the study, was a black box masquerading as a "subliminal noise generator" in the room. Installing wacky black boxes in every office in America sounds like the premise for yet another SNL sketch spoofing women in the workplace, but Smith offered a practical takeaway.
"People in authority positions need to put in place practices that make it feel normal for women to promote their accomplishments," Smith wrote. "Cultural shifts take time, so while we wait, our results also suggest that people should be proactive and promote the accomplishments of their female friends and colleagues to their bosses," she added.
Meanwhile, Facebook COO and Lean In coauthor Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant presented perhaps a more urgent resolution in their recent essay for The New York Times. Referencing the Yale research, the two wrote: "As 2015 starts, we wonder what would happen if we all held Obama-style meetings, offering women the floor whenever possible. Doing this for even a day or two might be a powerful bias interrupter, demonstrating to our teams and colleagues that speaking while female is still quite difficult."
Until then, there's always the fantasy world of the SNL sketch, where women can say what they want to say—whether in a boardroom or a work bathroom—without facing any backlash.