From Jill Abramson’s controversial firing from The New York Times to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement, there’s no shortage of debate right now over the treatment and equality of women in the workplace—particularly among the leadership ranks. Some workplace experts argue that more needs to done to ensure women receive equal pay and get promoted; others say that women need to learn to be their own best advocate.
Flynn Heath Holt, a women’s leadership coaching firm, says there’s one thing clearly holding many women back: how they speak and present themselves in meetings.
In an article published in June’s Harvard Business Review, Flynn’s founders say their years of coaching experience suggests that women executives often feel less confident and less willing to express their opinions in meetings. They apologize too much and defer too much to others in the room. They have trouble breaking into male-dominated conversations or feel their opinions are ignored. They may come off as meek or ineffective communicators—which surely hurts their leadership credibility.
Even male executives have offered up numerous examples of women executives who seem uncomfortable taking a stand, the authors note:
Several men reported seeing a female colleague get rattled or remain silent even when she was the expert at the table … The male managers we interviewed were well aware that women often have a hard time making their otherwise strong voices 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. More than a third indicated that when their female peers do speak up, they fail to articulate a strong point of view. Half said that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly, and fail to back up opinions with evidence.
So, given this feedback, what can women do to bolster their speaking in meetings—or at least garner more respect? The authors offer these four pointers:
1. Arrive early. Many men show up early at meetings to get a good seat at the table and chat with other participants. The authors suggest women could form more allegiances and improve their camaraderie by doing the same.
2. Prepare to speak spontaneously. Women often like to prepare what they say in meetings—and that’s a good practice. But they sometimes come off sounding too formal, the authors note. Women should practice talking off the cuff a little more.
3. Dial back the passion. The author’s research shows that men often feel women express too much exuberance or passion for their ideas, and it hurts their ability to persuade others. The authors admit there’s a clear double standard: Men aren’t bothered as much by emotional appeals by other men. But, all the same, it can help women to think about presenting their ideas more objectively, they write: “It is not so much what women say as how they say it. They need to keep an even tone, not shift to a higher pitch when under duress. They need to speak deliberately and avoid signaling frustration through sarcasm or curtness.”
4. Embrace confrontation. Many women don’t like confrontation and thus avoid it. But that can affect how they act—and react—in meetings. Realistically, confrontation is part of negotiating and expressing ideas with clarity and confidence. Women should be ready to face confrontation in meetings and even to confront others.
The authors concede that more also needs to be done to make meetings more accommodating and comfortable for women. Women need more direct feedback on their meeting and speaking skills from their managers and they need a larger presence in key meetings altogether. "When a woman walks into a meeting and finds that only two of the 15 people present are women, it takes a toll," the authors note. "Peer support and role models make a difference."
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