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Women, find your voice

    Kathryn Heath
    Jill Flynn
    Mary Davis Holt
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Some practical steps that can help them become more effective and more comfortable at meetings.

During decades of leadership coaching, we have consistently heard women say that they feel less effective in meetings than they do in other business situations. Some say that their voices are ignored or drowned out. Others tell us that they can’t find a way into the conversation. Their male colleagues and managers have witnessed the phenomenon. In fact, several men reported seeing a female colleague get rattled or remain silent even when she was the expert at the table.

In 2012, we decided to take a systematic look at the issue. We began by examining 360-degree feedback we’d collected on 1,100 female executives at or above the vice-president level — more than 7,000 surveys in all. We found widespread evidence in the executives’ comments and in those of their colleagues and managers that meetings were a big stumbling block. To corroborate and update what we saw in the 360s, we surveyed 270 female managers in Fortune 500 organisations. More than half reported that meetings were a significant issue or a “work in progress.” Finally, to get a picture of how the gender divide plays out in the highest-level meetings, we interviewed 65 top executives, including both male and female CEOs, from companies such as JPMorgan Chase, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and eBay. In all our investigations, we found that men and women generally agreed on the problems but often disagreed on their causes.

Although we have focused exclusively on women, we believe that many of our findings apply to others as well — members of ethnic minorities and men with more-reserved personalities. We also realise that some women don’t fit the mould we describe. However, we believe that our research and advice will be useful to the many female managers who struggle in critical meetings. We think it can also help bosses keen to encourage all team members to contribute to their full potential.

What men see

The male managers we interviewed were well aware that women often have a hard time making their 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, apologise repeatedly and fail to back up opinions with evidence. Men frequently described women as being defensive when challenged and apt to panic if they lose the attention of the room.

What women feel

If men perceive that women lack confidence at meetings, it’s because in many cases they do. Female executives, vastly outnumbered in boardrooms and C-suites and with few role models and sponsors, report feeling alone, unsupported and unable to advocate forcefully for their perspectives in many high-level meetings.

Many women admitted that they do get rattled when they’re challenged. They find it unsettling when anyone receives a sharp public rebuke, and they often second-guess themselves long after meetings are over.

Most say that the trouble they have articulating their views has more to do with timing than with their ability to marshal facts or control their feelings. In coaching sessions, women have told us that they sometimes get lukewarm responses when they raise an opposing view after the group has started to cohere around an idea. But they are strongly opposed to simply repeating others’ ideas in different words, something they feel many of their male colleagues do.

What women can do

In the future, when more women are leading organisations, they can approach meetings in a way that feels perfectly natural to them. In the meantime, several practical steps can help them become more effective and more comfortable.

Master the “pre-meeting”: Our research shows that female executives are very efficient. They come to meetings on time. They leave as soon as the last agenda item has been completed, rushing off to the next meeting or heading back to their offices to put out fires. We’ve found that men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion.

Women could go a long way toward addressing the problem of timing and their feelings of isolation if they sounded out colleagues and built allies in this way.

Prepare to speak: Many women we talked with prefer to pitch their ideas in formal presentations rather than in the more conversational way many men favour. Our advice to female executives, as counterintuitive as it sounds, is: prepare to speak spontaneously.

Women who do their homework can build on others’ remarks. Being armed with some cogent comments or questions can allow them to move the conversation forward.

Keep an even keel : In our 360-degree feedback survey analysis, we learned that when women said they felt “passionate” about an idea, their male managers and colleagues often perceived “too much emotion.”

Until that changes, women need to ensure that they are seen as composed. They need to keep an even tone, not shift to a higher pitch when under duress. They need to speak deliberately and avoid signalling frustration through sarcasm.

Women must also learn to move past confrontation without taking it personally. Karen Dahut, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, offers this learning experience: “I put out some controversial points in an executive committee meeting a while back, which we debated for a good while. Eventually I realised we could go no further, so I closed the conversation. But I thought about the disagreement all weekend; I worried I’d harmed my work relationships. I wondered what it would take to get them back. ... On Monday I saw some of my male colleagues — and there was no problem. To them, it was nothing!”

What organisations can do

First, companies should fix broken feedback mechanisms. Fully 68 per cent of the women in our study said they seldom receive any direct feedback about their meeting behaviour.

Next, at the risk of stating the obvious, leaders need to invite more women to the table. When a woman walks into a meeting and finds that only two of the 15 people present are women, it takes a toll.

Finally, bosses need to proactively pull women into the conversation. During our interviews, we asked 30 high-ranking women to name the one thing they would change about how men treat them in meetings. Thirty-eight percent said, “Ask us direct questions” or “Bring us into the discussion.”

Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn and Mary Davis Holt are partners at Flynn Heath Holt, a consulting firm focused on women's leadership development. They are the authors of “Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women's Paths to Power.”

From Harvard Business Review

© 2014 Harvard Business

School Publishing Corp.

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