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Women in Meetings: Learn to Speak Up

Women at meetings

When it comes to issues women face, we still seem to be many years away from reaching gender equality. I mean, is this really present-day? Yes, women in meetings still struggle with speaking up, and it’s interesting to find out what research reveals that men think of their female co-workers who sit beside them at the table.

Specific Struggles of Women in Meetings

What exactly are the struggles of women? Many females report finding it more difficult to speak out during meetings than in other business situations, according to a recent study summarized by the Harvard Business Review.

In that post, the researchers wrote that “some [women] say their voices are ignored or drowned out.” Who is drowning them? It would simplify the issue to say it is only men. In reality, there are many parts to the situation. It is likely that the seriousness of the business scenario, in which the managers sit and evaluate their employees based on their words and actions, plays a substantial role.

Perhaps the women in the study also felt intimidated by their male counterparts and that is why they did not speak up more? Certainly, it was not that they had nothing to say. Personally, I have felt timid around male personalities that are stronger than my own and have remained silent during situations when I had every right – now that I look back on it – to speak up. But, it seemed safer to say nothing and go with the flow.

Feeling afraid to speak up might be a sign of a toxic work environment. This guide explains the top signs.

Other Factors, Including Gender Inequality

As well, let’s think about who the managers are of many businesses. Unfortunately, the US corporate world is not balanced in terms of gender; there are not equal numbers of males and females in leadership roles in companies in that country. Yes, the corporate gender gap still exists. While this issue may hold true in other countries too; I am focusing on the US here as that’s the focus of the Harvard study.

With gender inequality in management, it stands to reason that women might struggle to find their voices during meetings because they see mainly men in their company’s top ranks. Plus, I wonder about the stereotype of corporations being primarily masculine territory. I mean, is this imagery still going strong today? I had hoped not but now with these survey results, I have doubts.

It also occurs to me that women may fear sounding rude if they do speak up in a meeting. They may think that doing so will reflect negatively on their work done back at their desks. Therefore, rather than risk jeopardizing their jobs, they say little during the meetings.

Suggestions for Women in Meetings

So now that we realize women in meetings aren’t speaking up as much as men, what are ways to improve the situation? Well, I think it all starts in the mind. Bring to mind images of successfully speaking up during the discussions. When you imagine a positive result, then you are more likely to achieve it.

On a related note, rather than worrying about what the men sitting around you at the table are thinking, impress them with a confident voice. If you believe in yourself then other people are more likely to do so too.

Also, taking on the approach of practice makes perfect. If the meeting is on Wednesday, take an hour on Monday and some more time on Tuesday to practice talking about a few points that will be relevant at the table. Perhaps you have suggestions for the company’s latest marketing strategy or a question that is relevant to ask. Practice saying it now and then it will be easier to say it when the meeting day arrives.

Another tip is to look over the agenda, if there is one, for what will be discussed at the meeting to get more comfortable with the subject matter. Often the agendas are handed out to each employee or sent via a bulk email. Doing research on the topics before the discussion begins in the boardroom may be a great way to think of points to say when at the table that ignites conversation and increase the female role there.

What are some other ways to encourage women to speak up more during meetings?


Top photo by Nlpictures, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

16 thoughts on “Women in Meetings: Learn to Speak Up”

  1. The practice makes perfect approach is a helpful solution.

    In my department their are eight women and two men. I don’t like meetings because I am an introvert. I say what I need while others go on an on, especially in a status meeting. They think if they don’t say much means they aren’t doing much.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Oh that’s interesting that being quiet is interpreted as not being productive… I appreciate you adding that point here, Susan. Some people, by the way, do like to hear their own voices during meetings and I’ve met a few of those kind too!

  2. Dear Christy,
    Often I have sat in meetings where I was the only woman at a table with many men. I am always prepped, as I know product knowledge sells ideas.
    I think it is important to be yourself. How often have you heard this?
    If you are you, then no time is wasted, and the confidence that got you that table in the first place shines through.

  3. Great that you brought this issue to light Christy. I know I am a very expressive person and find it hard to hold my view and opinions to myself. I am a great speaker one on one, but every author’s fear. . .the thought of public speaking is terrifying and perhaps many women feel that way because they are intimidated by men. I am not an easily intimidated person, but public speaking, gulp! :)

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Hi Deb, Yes I totally understand what you mean about one to one being easier to speak out than in a group setting. I think we’re not alone! Talk again soon :)

  4. Working in this world for thirty years I can tell you it has changed and not necessarily for the better. Yes, women have made strides to move up the ladder, yet at the same time we have lost ourselves. With the influx of cross cultural leadership, especially from nations other than western women are all to often ignored or even demeaned in their roles within organizations. This is especially true in certain industries.

    Speaking up isn’t always easily accomplished and even when you do, it isn’t always the ‘right’ answer.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Thanks for adding your points here, Val. I think unfortunately many women in the corporate world want to blend in so that they can move up the ladder without ‘ruffling any feathers,’ which can result in the loss of identify you speak of… I’m glad you spoke up here and that we both continue to do so.

  5. I would say: be prepared. And not with what you want to say, but with what you already KNOW. Unfortunately, this means more degrees and academic preparation. An intelligent and well prepared woman is going to be heard, no matter what, because she IS more prepared and she KNOWS. Unfortunately, it may mean more degrees, more time in school and more years of preparation. I say “unfortunately”, because intelligence can be natural, and should not necessarily have anything to do with “degrees” or “educational backgrounds”. But to my knowledge, education does pay a very important role with women these days, and they do have to be very well prepared and well read. The only reason I would stay quiet at a meeting is because I already know the leadership and respect the men, and they in turn respect me. So I don’t feel the need to “speak up”. If you don’t respect the men nor the leadership at meetings (and it has happened to me, believe me), then it means you either will have to work there for a longer time, or your days are counted. It could be that at heart you are an entrepreneur, and you are the one who will be running the meetings yourself (or with others that think like you). I believe this also has to do with leadership styles. Even when a meeting is run solely by men, if they have a democratic leadership style, they will let you participate. But women also have to be ready and be prepared to “jump in” into the conversation. And this means more preparation, more knowledge.

    1. Christy Birmingham

      Thank you Maria for a such a thoughtful response here. I think that preparation certainly is important. It will allow women to be quicker on their feet than if they are ill-prepared and feel more confident within the boardroom. I am glad you found a strategy that truly worked well for you and that you earned the respect of your peers. Wishing you a great rest of your day!

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