By Sarah Sheehan – As a woman who has spent the last 20 years climbing the corporate ladder, I’ve learned that there are many keys to professional success. One of them is knowing when and how to communicate about the things you want, need, and deserve.

Yet finding the confidence to speak up about the things you’re facing can be incredibly difficult. That’s what led me to found Bravely, a platform that connects employees with expert coaches for confidential conversations about whatever they’re struggling with. I’ve made it my goal in life to help people speak up when something is holding them back at work. 

This is no easy feat. According to a survey conducted by leadership training company VitalSmarts, 70% of U.S. employees are avoiding a difficult conversation with their manager, colleague, or direct report. Even worse, 53% of people say that they’re handling a toxic workplace situation by avoiding it. 

My team at Bravely has taken this data and coined the term “Conversation Gap”—and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why it exists. The list of reasons is long. Trust between employees and employers is broken, forums like Glassdoor have made it easy to vent anonymously, and people fear retribution or punishment. This fear is magnified for us women (as well as people of color and people who are LGBTQ+), as we often feel like we need to decide between advancing in our career or speaking our mind. Engaging in challenging dialogue can simply feel too risky for those of us who are underrepresented in the workplace. I’ve been there and I am sure you have too. 

The unfortunate truth is that this conversation gap ends up perpetuating other gaps that hold women back from professional success. Many of us can probably remember a time when we were given a raise and told (by our male manager) that we should feel “grateful” for our new salary. In that moment, even though we were hoping to get a bigger pay bump (and felt like we deserved it), we let it slide because we were afraid of what might happen if we spoke up. As a result, our compensation flat-lined—and just like that, the conversation gap widened the pay gap.

The unfortunate truth is that this conversation gap ends up perpetuating other gaps that hold women back from professional success.

Of course the conversation gap impacts female employees in other ways as well. The #MeToo movement highlighted the number of women who were afraid to raise their voices for fear of retaliation. Women were bullied into quitting their jobs, and exiled from their industries entirely, after being forced into silence through arbitration. And I personally know countless women who have seen their focus, productivity, and work product suffer due to coworker conflict that they simply didn’t know how to address.

So what’s the solution? How can women focus on closing the conversation gap and get ahead in their careers? 

First, you should practice having these difficult conversations—ideally with people who can give you objective and unbiased advice. Whether you’re discussing your performance during a 1-on-1 meeting, giving tough feedback, or highlighting unfair treatment or harassment, it can be hard to get comfortable with this kind of dialogue. When employees use Bravely, they’re able to “role play” with their coach and prepare for the conversation they’ll ultimately have with their boss, colleague, or HR. This seemingly painful (who really wants to role play?) but necessary exercise helps people gain confidence they were lacking and structure their thoughts. The result: these meetings end up being more productive and more likely to produce the successful outcome they were hoping for. 

Second, remember that it’s important to leave emotions and ultimatums at the door. Unless you’re speaking up about harassment or bullying (which is a different conversation entirely), your conversations should be as positive and as fact-based as possible. The good news is that this approach should help you feel more confident about whatever it is that you’re discussing. If you can point to your accomplishments, the value you add to your team, and the reasons why you deserve whatever it is that you’re asking for, I’ve found that more often than not you’ll get what you need. 

Finally, never forget that your voice is a powerful tool. The moment you begin approaching situations and conversations you have been avoiding and that have been holding you back, is the moment you’ll start working Bravely. 

About The Author

Sarah Sheehan began her career in Human Resources in roles at SiriusXM, Coach, and Gilt Groupe before transitioning to the role of Head of Sales at Gilt City – the luxury lifestyle experiences arm of Gilt Groupe. In this role, Sarah ran a 65-person sales team, managed $60 million in yearly revenue, and expanding the brand to top cities across the U.S. She was also responsible for national partnerships with brands like Exhale, Bliss, Coach, Blue Apron, and J. Crew.

After Gilt City, Sarah co-founded an ed-tech company focused on educating kids on the importance of environmental and wildlife conservation through designed products and online digital experiences. The company raised $1mm in venture financing and was accepted into the acclaimed “500 Accelerated Startups” program.

Sarah’s experience in HR, team management, and tech startups – combined with an ongoing obsession to help people gain confidence and find purpose in their work – inspired her to co-found Bravely in 2017.