Why Women Fail To Speak Up At High-Level Meetings, And What Everyone Can Do About It

New research finds female executives feel less effective in meetings, and a trio of female leadership consultants set out to discover why.

Have you ever been in a meeting and wanted to speak up, but didn’t? Perhaps it wasn’t the right time. Maybe you couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and afterwards, you were disappointed, frustrated, or both.

If so, you’re not alone, say Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt, partners at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm, and authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power. They penned the article, "Women, Find Your Voice" in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review.

In 2012, Heath, Flynn, and Holt reviewed 7,000 surveys and 360-degree feedback evaluations for 1,100 female executives at the vice-president level or higher, surveyed 270 female managers of Fortune 500 companies, and interviewed 65 top executives (both male and female) from companies like JPMorgan Chase, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Lowe’s, Time Warner, and eBay.

What they found was that more than half of the Fortune 500 executives reported that meetings were a "significant issue or a ‘work in progress,’" and, while men and women seemed to agree on the problems, they often disagreed on the causes.

While men said their female colleagues weren’t loud enough, allowed others to interrupt them, apologized often, and failed to back up their opinions with evidence, women reported they felt outnumbered and have difficulty reading the room, were uncomfortable with conflict, and any trouble articulating their views was due to timing rather than emotions. For example, some women expressed reluctance to voice an alternate opinion because they felt the decision had effectively been made.

So, what can women do to be more effective in meetings, and what can companies do to better support them? Here’s what the authors suggest:

1. Participate in pre-meetings.

The authors note that while female executives are very efficient, getting to meetings on time and adjourning promptly to handle other pending issues, men tend to arrive at meetings early and linger afterward, spending time connecting with colleagues.

"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," the authors note. Much of the work takes place at the meetings before the meeting and clarifies the purpose of the meeting, which isn’t always clear from the agenda, the trio says. For example, will a decision be made? Will they confirm a consensus? Knowing the purpose going into the meeting makes it easier to participate.

2. Prepare to speak spontaneously.

Women generally prefer pitching during presentations, as opposed to spontaneously, as men prefer to communicate, the authors found. While they acknowledge their advice is counterintuitive, the authors recommend coming to the meeting armed with key discussion points.

"You need to have written down some things you want to talk about," says Lynne Ford, executive vice president of Calvert Investments, a Bethesda, Maryland-based investment management firm. "Even some of the casual, off-the-cuff remarks you hear have been rehearsed. If it sounds good, it was probably prepared," Ford says.

3. Pay attention to delivery.

When it comes to expressing passion for something, there’s definitely a double standard, the authors note. While women may feel passionate about an idea, men interpret that expression as emotion. Therefore, it’s not so much what women say as how they say it, the authors write. That’s why it’s important for women to maintain an even tone, avoiding sarcasm or curt replies.

The authors also suggest women use "muscular" words – active, authoritative statements - when voicing their opinions, owning their opinions (as opposed to hedging), and building on their colleagues’ ideas. For example, instead of saying, "Well, what if…," try saying, "I strongly suggest…" or instead of, "I tend to agree…," try, "That is absolutely right, and here’s why…"

4. Let it go.

Debate is healthy, and conversations can become intense, the authors say. Don’t take confrontation personally. While women tend to ruminate, men go out for a beer after and put the matter behind them.

It’s not just women who need to speak up, the authors write. Companies and leaders need to step up, too. A number or survey respondents reported they didn’t receive direct feedback about their meeting behavior. If leaders observe women not speaking up, say something to them, rather than about them, the authors suggest. Include more women in meetings. And, male colleagues, ask women questions to include them in the conversation.

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

[Image: Flickr user itupictures]

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  • Lack of confidence is 50% of the story. The other half is there's a fundamental belief that being feminine in the workplace is unprofessional.

    I coach women who left corporate because they had to leave themselves at the door every day - and they are exhausted for having to apologize for who they are.

    We rely on one model for success, the masculine model (if not the war model, given words such as aggressive, muscular & winning). Just in this article alone, notice the beliefs against women. Muscular is good; anything else is weak, without power or punch. Emotions are bad and women need to please men and cut that out or be cut out. It's just the tip of the iceberg - and men are not the only ones responsible. Women believe this too, and we hold ourselves back.

    If we want women to speak up, we have to give them the space to do it on their terms and be open to receiving it. The benefit: depth of vision, creativity and fierce motivation that women bring. www.ignitedwoman.com

  • It is much easier to speak up at such a meeting if you have been to lunch with all the relevant stakeholders. This holds true for men and women. Knowing a little bit more fleshed out other peoples' opinions and concerns and reasons will help you making suggestions that are agreeable for everyone. And I agree how some casual remarks or jokes are planned well in advance.

  • It is nice to shout out "oh why have we do the adapting?!!" and "men should change too!!" but the reality is a bit more complex than that.

    Men also have to change in order to be successful: they have to be able to be understood (loudness level and fluent speaking), have good arguments (fitting for the topic, with relevancy, etc) and understand how the game is played.

    I do run a women in tech and startup meetup here in Berlin with an open mic method - for basically the reason described on the article here.

    Generalizing, but I have been doing this for many years, so speaking not only from experience on those meetups but also decades of teaching: Women need to be carried to pitch their project and triple encouraged (the same which complain about men getting all the attention). Many times, sadly more often than not, it starts with excuses for even daring to speak, then followed by not good "pitches".

  • (cont for limitation on comment)

    The pitches can be things like 'looking for a job, my new project, looking for employees, betatesters etc'. Combined with hesitant voices (microfon is provided).

    I do these events basically because I believe in providing training wheels - you need opportunities to train before you can go into the real game. However, if you want to play, you need to be on the level required. As an potential executive that includes assessing which level you are - male or female - and then work on your strengths as well as get rid of weaknesses. To use an example which does not have the gender problematic: If you are german like me, you work on your accent

    If you get nervous presenting, you train. If you have a 'smaller' voice, you make sure there are mics. If you have a chance to pitch something, you are ready and know what you want to get across. Get a mentor. Make a support network. Tons of options and ways to change the world.

  • While this advice is true and it works, it so pains me to once again be told that women have to do the changing. This is the very definition of male privilege at work and it doesn't account for the impact on women's careers when the "use more muscular words."

    Also, on a related note, You say "what can everyone do about it?" then give advice only to the women. Why? Is there a second half of this piece missing?

  • Carolyn Cochran Jolly

    Once again, the men have shouted the women down and our female apologists support them. Why do women have to adapt male language and mannerisms in order to be heard? And men are more prepared? Please! My experience: Men are much more likely to have just returned from the golf course while the women were working hard.

  • I completely agree with Scott below. Having been in a situation as the only woman in an all male management team (and being excluded from golf days) I can certainly empathise.

    But I'm also sick of all the advice continuously dished out to women on how they need to adapt to a patriarchal business world. It's time we started changing the rules to include more 'female-ness' in how we conduct business and start making the men a little more accountable for how women are accommodated.

    I don't want to be equal in a world that forces half of us to change our very nature to be like the other half - it's time we start making lists for how men should behave in meetings!

  • Kimberli Henrietta

    How does one not allow someone to interrupt her? My naivete is probably showing, but shouldn't the chair (or whoever) of the meeting ask for courtesy from all? I honestly would like others thoughts.

    Also, hello, Lindsay, from another Chicagoan! I hope you enjoyed the storms last night.

  • It's only the responsibility of the chair if it's getting out of hand. I agree with Scott. Professionals handle these situations as they occur. "Pardon me, I was talking...", "I'm happy to listen to your comment when I finish speaking...", ad nauseam. It also depends on the politics of the meeting and who is involved. Never let people completely block you out by talking over you. You are teaching people how to treat you and what you will and will not allow.

  • Scott Nushart

    What an absolutely apropos topic, unfortunately. Having had the opportunity to work with some of the best female project managers and engineers in my career, few had had the skill to either 'work the room', or build allegiances before and after the meetings.

    Frequently relegated to the role of the good old boys network vs. them, the loss of clout was palpable. What is critical to to all participants in meetings is knowing the information cold going in, and don't acquiesce if the presenter is doing a lukewarm job of presenting new topics. The assertiveness of participants (male or female) defines their roles in the grand scheme.