Got a seat at the meeting table? Raise your voice

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, and in a classic bad news/good news scenario, long lunches have become as rare as housewives shooting birds

Women may now have a seat at the table, but it’s not always a comfortable one. Modern meeting culture was established half a century ago when women were still fighting for their place on the lowest rungs of the career ladder. In the years since, despite incredible technological and social advances, the biggest change made to meetings seems to be the amount of time we spend in them

While forward-thinking companies pave the way for a future free from back-to-backs, women face a present challenge. In ‘Women at Work’, a 2014 Harvard Business Review study, over half of the women surveyed reported being less effective in meetings than in other work situations. According to research by Catalyst, hybrid work has amplified the problem of women’s struggle to assert themselves. They found that 45% of women leaders said it’s challenging to speak up in virtual meetings, and 20% said they felt ignored or overlooked by workmates during video calls. 

While everyone agrees there is a gender problem, they disagree on the cause. Men interviewed for ‘Women at Work’ put the issue down to women not speaking loudly enough, not finding opportunities to break into the conversation, defensiveness, and apologising too readily. While these critiques can be easily explained by women’s attempts to avoid backlash by navigating expectations of how they should act, other insights can be actioned. 

And act we should. While it’s easy to get rattled when you feel drowned out, we can’t afford to sit back and wait for the world to wake up to the value of our input. We can and should use well-known strategies and techniques to establish our leadership presence at the table. Over the next few weeks, we’ll all be spending a lot of time at another, more food-laden table, so this could be the best time to get practising: 

Project confidence 

Our words have far less impact than our body language. If you’ve watched history’s greatest speech, read the transcript for a stark display of how words alone aren’t nearly as powerful as Martin Luther King’s masterful delivery. 

You have more control than you might think over the image you present to the world, and people respond to the confidence and authority you project. Those who lack confidence tend to shrink – 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 avoid fidgeting nervously with a pen (or nails and cuticles like Kristen and Nat). 

If you’re unsure how to authentically modify your body language, there’s a simple way to figure it out. Next time you’re in your element – hanging with close friends or family – take note of how your body moves. How you walk, sit, gesticulate, maintain eye contact, tone of voice, and show active listening. That’s the presence you bring to your next meeting.

Don’t be too humble

There’s a moment in most meetings where everyone gets a chance to contribute; during the introductions. While it can feel uncomfortable, this is your opportunity to make it clear that you belong. Women tend to undersell themselves, so don’t be fooled by the casual nature of a meeting intro. Practise your elevator pitch because you have 10 seconds to assert your credibility and establish what you want from the meeting. 

You can make subtle changes to convey confidence during meetings, even if there are no upfront intros. Be more direct by cutting the “maybes” and “what ifs” and swap sentence starters like “How about…” with “I strongly suggest…”. 

Master the pre and post-meeting

While it’s tempting to see them as an interruption to your real work, it’s potentially more valuable to reframe meetings as your real work. Rather than racing in and out, act more like men and build in time at either end to get a good seat, chat with colleagues and build allies. Force yourself to have a buffer by updating your calendar settings in Microsoft or Google to block out 15 minutes on either side of every invite.

Meetings before meetings can also be where real value can be created. Before you go, you should have a good idea of what a successful outcome is (a decision?) and the specific value you can add. Informal conversations 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 for a leader. You’ll project confidence if you do your homework and go prepared. Counterintuitively, preparing to ‘speak spontaneously’ is important. Write down some things you want to discuss. 

Plan to be rattled

Manterrupting is a thing, and it will happen to you. In fact, during fast-paced meetings, you may be challenged or interrupted, but that doesn’t mean your voice isn’t important – it could come down to 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 in the moment: 

  • “I haven’t finished my thought and can’t wait to hear what you think about it.”
  • “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

In a video call, you can also raise your digital hand ✋to let other participants know you haven’t finished yet. The same hand also works if you have a point to make but struggle to cut in.

Your voice earns respect

Everyone hates 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 the policies, strategic direction or culture of the organisation you work for. So, put your imposter syndrome aside, and have your say. 📢

30 second action

Amplification is a tactic that was popularised by female Whitehouse staffers under President Obama. When a woman made a key point in a meeting, another woman would repeat it and give a nod to the source. The tactic worked – it prevented men from claiming all ideas as their own, and men, including Obama, began calling more often on women and junior aides.

For allies and overachievers: when you next spot a woman at the table with something to add, take your lead from an example in ‘Women, Find Your Voice’ and create a safe space for her to speak up.

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