“Speaking While Female”
The scenario mentioned above is, unfortunately, all too common in the workplace, even today. In fact, it’s so prevalent that numerous studies (including these seven studies) have been conducted to try and get to the bottom of this gender-specific epidemic. What’s more, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have even coined the term “speaking while female,” which goes hand-in-hand with another wide-spread phenomenon known as “mansplaining.”
The Differing Views of Women and Men
One such study called Women, Find Your Voice, which was published by the Harvard Business Review back in 2012, asked both male and female participants to provide 360-degree feedback on “1,100 female executives at or above the vice president level.” What researchers found from the 7,000-plus surveys collected was “that men and women generally agreed on the problems but often disagreed on their causes.”
What the Men Said
The male managers who were interviewed indicated that they were well aware of the fact that it is difficult for women, even the strong-voiced ones, to be heard in meetings, “either because they’re not speaking loudly enough or because they can’t find a way to break into the conversation at all.”
One male executive from the study even went so far as to say the following about two of his “highly successful and powerful” female colleagues in a meeting, “One went off on tangents, bringing in disparate points with few facts. It was like a snowball going down a hill and picking up stuff in its path. The other got wrapped up in the passion she feels for the topic, and she said the same thing three different ways.”
Another participant of the survey, a male CEO, suggested that women don’t get heard in “high-octane meetings” because they’re either too passive or have terrible timing. “Women are often either quiet and tentative, or they pipe up at the wrong moment, and it sounds more like noise to some of us.” Ladies, if only we were more aggressive with our terribly-timed “noise,” then maybe we’d be heard more in meetings. Why didn’t someone tell us earlier, guys?
What the Women Said
Women, on the other hand, perceived the problem of not being heard in meetings to be less about a woman’s lack-of-confidence (as men saw it) and much more about being underrepresented and isolated in meetings. Part of the problem is that female executives often find themselves outnumbered by male executives in the boardroom and C-suites, so they end up feeling “alone, unsupported, outside their comfort zones, and unable to advocate forcefully for their perspectives in many high-level meetings,” according to the study’s findings. It doesn’t help that women, at all levels of the corporate ladder, have few role models and sponsors to encourage and support them during meetings, and especially throughout their careers.
5 Tips on Being Heard in Meetings
Here are five ways you can ensure that you’re being heard in meetings, instead of glossed over and ignored.
- Be present.
First things first: ensure that you’re in attendance to the important meetings that involve you, your department, and your job — just being there is half of the battle. If you’re being excluded from said meetings, then take it up with the organizers or whoever is in charge and make your voice heard. Be clear with your requests, but always do it in a professional manner. If you’re still being unheard and ignored, then it may be an issue that needs to be taken up with HR.
- Be prepared.
As with many things in life, preparation is key. Knowing who will be in attendance, what will be discussed, and what is the expected outcome for each meeting will help you start on the right foot. If you have time before a meeting, consider having a pre-meeting to go over some of your talking points with a couple of trusted colleagues — like a mock meeting, if you will. It’s also a good idea to jot down your questions, concerns, talking points, etc. before heading into the meeting so that you don’t forget them once the meeting and opinions have commenced.
- Don’t be afraid to chime in (aka interrupt).
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Just because you’re at a meeting and speaking, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being heard. If you feel as though you’re being overlooked or not heard, then don’t be afraid to voice your opinion a second or third time. It helps to have someone at the meeting who is willing to support you and acknowledge and validate your input.
- Be confident, not defensive, with your input.
If there’s one thing that will help you get heard in meetings, it’s having unapologetic confidence — which is often difficult to possess when you’re a woman in a man’s world. Even if you have to fake it to make it, being confident enough to “lean in” at meetings and speak up will have a huge impact for you. Whatever you do, don’t get defensive if you’re ignored or shunned for lending your opinions, because these things happen, regardless if you’re male or female. If you have to present your input from a different angle, then take a few minutes to strategize and deliver — sometimes, it’s the delivery that throws people off. Always be confident and persistent, and never be defensive.
- Give credit where credit is due, especially to female colleagues.
Even the White House wasn’t immune to the “speaking while female” epidemic. Female staffers were often excluded from high-level meetings and had to “shoulder their way into important conversations,” says Susan Rice, the national security adviser, to The Cut. However, even when they were in attendance at meetings, female staffers were still being overlooked — so they decided to band together and implement a strategy called “amplification.”
“When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” Female staffers indicate that things have gotten better in Obama’s second term, that the gender split among his top aides is much more even and half of the departments in the White House are headed by women.
Just remember when you’re leaning in, sitting at the table, breaking the glass ceiling, and shattering stereotypes of women in the workplace, to remain poised and professional along the way. Don’t think of this as a war between genders, because you’ll only make the situation worse. Instead, consider your efforts as part of the culmination and continuation of the progress that the many strong, dedicated, and fearless women before you have fought so tirelessly and relentlessly for: equality.
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