Got a seat at the meeting table? Make it count.

Women at meeting

In the 1960s, executives spent less than 10 hours a week in meetings, leaving plenty of time in the workday for 3-martini lunches. Fifty years on, long lunches have become as rare as housewives shooting birds.

Modern meeting culture was established when women were still fighting for their place on the lowest rungs of the career ladder. We now have a seat at the table, but let’s hope it’s a comfortable one. Despite incredible technological and social advances, the biggest change made to meetings in the last half-century is the time we spend in them.

Women feel less effective in meetings

While forward-thinking companies pave the way for a future free from back-to-backs, we still face a present challenge. In ‘Women at Work’, a 2014 Harvard Business Review study, over half the respondents reported being less effective in meetings. Hybrid work amplifies the problem – 45% of women leaders say it’s challenging to speak up, and 20% feel ignored or overlooked by workmates during video calls.

Most agree that there is a gender problem with meetings, but we disagree on the cause. Some (conveniently) blame women for not speaking loudly enough, not finding opportunities to break into the conversation, defensiveness, and apologising too readily. We believe it’s not women but meeting culture that needs fixing – however, there’s probably some truth to that list. It’s reasonable for women to avoid backlash by conforming to expectations of how we should act.

But act, we should. We know diverse teams outperform, and women are still severely underrepresented in the rooms where decisions get made. We can’t afford to sit back and wait for the world to wake up to our value. We can and should use well-known strategies and techniques to make an impact at the table:

Actions speak louder than words

You have more control than you might think over the image you present, and body language accounts for most of it. Read the transcript of this famous speech to experience the limitations of words alone.

People unconsciously tend to shrink when avoiding the spotlight. So, in meetings, do the opposite. Lean over the table or back in your chair with your shoulders relaxed. Place your arms on the table slightly away from your body, and don’t fidget nervously with a pen (or nails and cuticles like Kristen and Nat).

Unsure how to authentically modify your body language? There’s a simple way to figure it out. Next time you’re in your element—with close friends or family—take note of your body—how you walk, sit, gesticulate, maintain eye contact, tone of voice, and actively listen. That’s the presence to bring to your next meeting.

First impressions count

In most meetings, there’s a moment during introductions when everyone gets a chance to contribute. Practise your elevator pitch and use those 10 seconds to assert your credibility (why you’re there, how you can add value) and establish what you want from the meeting.

No disclaimers!

You can make subtle changes to how you engage during meetings, even without upfront intros. Be more direct by cutting the “maybes” and “what ifs” and own your opinions by swapping sentence starters like “How about…” with “I recommend”.

Build a buffer

It’s tempting to see them as an interruption to your real work, but many meetings are your real work. Rather than racing in and out, build time at either end to chat with colleagues and foster connections. Enforce a buffer by updating your calendar settings in Microsoft or Google to block out 15 minutes on either side of every invite.

Master the pre and post-meeting

Meetings before meetings are often where real value is created. Before turning up, you should know the desired outcome (a decision?) and the specific value you can add. Informal conversations beforehand allow you to test ideas and garner support, making it easier to take an active part in the conversation once the meeting kicks off.

Pre-meetings can be as simple as a shoulder tap followed by a question or two or a quick email to share relevant information. Again, your calendar is your friend – lock in prep time so you prioritise it.

Know the facts

Building a well-formed argument is a powerful communication technique. Do your homework and come prepared. Write down (and share in advance) any key points you want to discuss.

Plan to get rattled

Manterrupting is a thing, and at some point in your career, it will happen to you. You may also be challenged or interrupted during fast-paced meetings. None of those things mean your voice isn’t important – it could simply be different communication styles. If interruptions throw you, you should prepare for them. Here are some one-liners you can jot in your notebook ready to roll out as required: 

  • “I haven’t quite finished, and can’t wait to hear your thoughts.”
  • “I’m curious about your response; I’ll finish my point, and then I would love to hear your thoughts.”
  • Feeling confrontational? Kamala Harris used “I’m not finished talking” during the 2020 US Vice Presidential debate

Video call? Use the tools

In a video call, raise your digital hand if you have a point to make but struggle to cut in. The same hand also lets other participants know if you’re interrupted or haven’t finished yet. 

Your voice earns respect

Most of us hate meetings, but while they continue to play a critical role in our work, it’s worth making them work for you. If you’re in the meeting, you’ve earned the right to have your say in your organisation’s policies, strategic direction or culture.

If we’re giving up precious Martini time, we may as well put that time to good use.

30 second action

‘Amplification’ was popularised by female Whitehouse staffers under President Obama. When a woman made a point in a meeting, another woman would repeat it and recognise the source. The tactic worked – women and junior aides started to be called on more for their input. Try it at a meeting this week.

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