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How to Empower Women in Meetings

Across industries, from Hollywood to engineering, women and traditionally feminine forms of communication are overtly and covertly discouraged. Gender bias in the workplace shows up as unequal pay for women and a paucity of women in senior management business positions. Pay close attention and you’ll also observe gender bias in daily micro-moments at work, particularly in meetings.

Regardless of your gender, keep reading. This is for everyone who cares about a better workplace.

Challenges for women in meetings

Beenish Zia and Nina Lane from Intel Corporation presented this video on gender bias in meetings at the Society of Women Engineers 2016 conference. Who better to talk about this than female engineers working in the male-dominated fields of math and science? Listen to brave women (and men!) discuss challenges and solutions for equalizing the playing field for women in meetings and the workplace at large.

The video is 16 minutes long and well-worth the time to watch. If you don’t have the time, we share some highlights below!

What women in meetings experience with male colleagues

Female Intel employees report getting their ideas stolen and having their comments “mansplained” back to them by men in the room. They say the ideas they contribute are not taken seriously until they are repeated by male colleagues. They also report not being perceived as competent enough by their male counterparts - particularly in technical matters.

These biases against women are often unconscious and have been internalized by many men and women. It takes a desire to confront them and take corrective action to begin to shift long standing patterns. Intel employees offer some concrete solutions for change.

What can women and their allies do?

Women and their allies can support each other’s ideas by repeating them and attributing them to the correct female sources, say Intel employees. They can also call out bad behavior by saying something like, “John, it sounds like you agree with the idea that Maria offered five minutes ago.” Women need to recognize the value of what they bring and get creative about inserting their voices into the room in ways that can be heard.

How do women find their voices in meetings?

In their Harvard Business Review article, “Women, Find Your Voice,” authors Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt share their research into the behaviors of women and men in leadership positions in meetings. Their findings reveal that women leaders “feel less effective in meetings than they do in other business situations.”

The Problem: A Difference in Perception

It turns out that what male leaders see and what women leaders feel in meetings are aligned. Men observed that women were less vocal than they were. The women didn’t speak loud enough or couldn’t break into the conversation. Women leaders reported not feeling confident in meetings, often because they were the minority in the room. Men observed that women did not share a strong point of view and allowed themselves to be interrupted by their male colleagues. Women shared they felt fazed by confrontation and unable to find the right moment to speak.

The researchers offer some concrete actions that women and organizations can take to help women feel more effective in meetings, at least until “the future, when more women are leading organizations, (and) they can approach meetings in a way that feels perfectly natural to them.”

What Women Can Do

  • Join the unofficial pre-meeting “party” and build allies. Women can adopt some of the behaviors that men exhibit in meetings. They can arrive at the meeting space early to take part in the “informal advance conversations” that men unofficially conduct before the formal meeting.

  • Prepare in advance. Women can prepare their thoughts and ideas in advance to help them speak more confidently during meetings.

  • Be mindful of how they are perceived. Women can also learn to keep their voices and faces composed during moments when they feel stressed (an unfortunate double standard not required of men) and to learn not to take confrontation personally.

What Organizations Can Do

Heath, Flynn, and Holt suggest that an organization’s leaders should also be proactive. Executives can invite women into meeting conversations by asking for their ideas and opinions, and give them feedback to help improve their participation. Organizations with women in leadership roles who participate confidently in meetings provide positive role models for other women.

Gender bias is not just about women

Caroline Turner, author of Difference Works, argues that gender bias is an issue which affects men as well as women. In fact, the real issue is “about masculine and feminine styles of working and leading, which are part of both men and women.” Men can also be punished for displaying feminine styles of leadership, and therefore fail to develop or share this authentic side of them.

The key for leaders is awareness. One style of working is not better than the other nor does everyone need to behave in the same ways. The key is to find “a balance of masculine and feminine ways of thinking.” In this one minute video, Turner shares how effective leaders must be “bilingual” in both masculine and feminine ways of speaking.

The truth is that organizations succeed when women are promoted to leadership positions, and that process can start by empowering women in meetings.

Have you witnessed gender bias in meetings? How have you, your colleagues, or organization worked to combat it?

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