Speak Up Ladies, Your Career Depends On It!

When She Speaks: Owning Your Voice in Business Meetings

We see it in the boardroom, in Congress and in workplaces across the United States. Men dominate meetings and interrupt women at a significantly higher rate than they interrupt other men. Speaking up in meetings can be especially daunting for women in technology and other fields where they are outnumbered by men. Active participation in meetings increases visibility and career opportunities, allows employees to share their viewpoints, and encourages inclusion that may shape company strategies and decisions. In other words, silence diminishes a woman’s relationship to the company and conveys the notion that she doesn’t have anything worthwhile to contribute.

When you look for ways to share your voice, you’ll find abundant opportunities. I’ve listed recommendations below from my personal experience and have included some great advice from successful and influential women on establishing a powerful presence.

STRATEGIES

Ask questions. Earlier in my career, I found myself at a loss for how to participate in meetings, especially if the subject matter was outside of my area of my expertise. I became very skilled at asking questions which had the benefit of increasing my understanding of the topic. Inquiry also helps identify opportunities for participation, and facilitates dialogue among coworkers. “Asking questions is one of the best ways to ensure participation in a meeting. It is difficult for anyone to ignore a relevant direct question.” — Gloria Bell, Co-Founder & Operations Director, The Women in Tech Summit

Get on the agenda or run the meeting. Get on the meeting agenda to ensure that you have space to share your ideas and input. Better yet, step into your full power and run the meeting. Both of these options give you a chance to prepare ahead of time. “Where I work, my voice needs to be heard. I am the sales/marketing/business perspective in a sea of technologists. Many times, I am the one who has set up the meeting and creates the agenda. It is a balance of running a meeting and getting my opinions heard.” — Tracey Welson Rossman, CMO, Chariot Solutions, Founder, TechGirlz.org, Co-Founder, Women in Tech Summit

Find an ally. If you are struggling to establish your voice, find an ally who can help you participate. Prior to the meeting, you and your ally can establish ways to support one another’s ideas to make sure they are heard. “Something else that has worked for me is to have a ‘meeting buddy’ — someone who attends many of the same meetings. You agree with your buddy, in advance, to work to make sure both of you are heard in a meeting through direct questions or comments like, ‘Gloria and I were talking about this issue earlier and she had some interesting thoughts/questions. Gloria why don’t you share them with the group.’” — Gloria Bell

Jump in. Remember, the stakes for not speaking up are higher than they are for saying something unoriginal. Sitting silently will be remembered in a way that a mediocre comment will not. Sometimes the only way to get heard is to start speaking over the person who is speaking. I’ve learned to do this through my career, especially if I’ve been the only female in the room. “Not being afraid to interrupt anyone who’s speaking (even if they’re in a position of power over you) is the first step to getting heard. In order to do this, you have to be confident enough that whatever you’re saying or asking is of value to the group you’re speaking to.” — Leigh Silver, Digital Strategy and Audience Development Consultant

Use nonverbal cues. Walk and talk with confidence, make eye contact, convey a sense of power and pride in yourself through nonverbal cues. If there are new people at the meeting, stand up and shake as many hands as you can — own the room and make friends. “The other basics, that are easy to forget about, are key: eye contact, head up, a firm handshake, and so on. Most of the time, someone already has shaped an opinion on whether or not you have something worthwhile to say based on how the initial body language messages were conveyed.” — Katie O’Hara, Former Engineer and CEO of Katie O’Hara Design

Don’t settle for passive roles. Avoid passively participating in meetings by assuming roles that limit your capacity to step into power. If you always participate in meetings by offering to organize food or taking notes, you limit your ability to speak up since you will be distracted by other tasks.

WHAT IF MY IDEAS ARE CHALLENGED?

Some women may be afraid of speaking up due to the fear of being challenged or fear of failure, especially in a unfriendly or male-dominated work environment. The cost of losing your voice to fear is high as it can hold you back from interesting projects, salary increases and opportunities for promotion.

Anticipate challenges. Before the meeting, anticipate potential questions, feedback, or arguments that make you uncomfortable. Write up the list of the questions you are afraid that participants will ask and develop answers for them. “If it’s a presentation that will have a question/answer period or it’s just a meeting about a controversial topic, then hold practice runs with peers who can challenge you in a safe setting prior to the real deal.” — Emily Hoffman, Civil Engineer

See challenge as growth, not personal. Challenges can expand ideas and lead to innovative breakthroughs. Ask yourself, “Are you being challenged personally or is the idea being challenged?” Extend clarifying questions to the challenger to diffuse the situation and to identify opportunities for growth. “It really depends on the nature of how my ideas are being challenged, and the motivation of the person doing the challenging. For example, are they iterating on the idea I’ve presented or blatantly trying to shut me down in a disrespectful way? As a hiring manager of an innovative team, I’ve consciously hired diverse thinkers which means when we come together to invent and talk through a project, it’s natural for any and all ideas to be challenged as we evolve the idea.” — Sarah Toms, IT Technical Director of the Alfred West Jr. Learning Lab at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Co-inventor of simpl.world.

Use data and facts. More than ever, data-driven leadership and decision making are the hallmarks of technology organizations. “Data and proven examples are your best bet in convincing those around you to support your ideas. When I am passionate about an idea, I often express the importance of the idea through emotional appeal, but I’ve found that hard facts and previous examples work better in rallying people around moving forward with your ideas. Then you can use passion and emotion to keep people engaged and excited once a decision has been made to follow you.” — Leigh Silver

Know when to let go. Not every challenge needs to be met immediately. And keep in mind that not every challenger always has innocent intentions. On occasion, you may come up against a confrontational situation that requires private meetings to resolve.

WHAT ABOUT SILENCE?

While there is never power in consistent silence in the workplace, silence itself can be used as a tool for empowerment to strengthen your voice or protect yourself in an highly charged or toxic situation. “Silence … it is the underestimated power player. People are notoriously uncomfortable with silence but if I keep talking, I start to sound uncertain and less confident. To me, and from my experience, allowing for silence strengthens the message.” — Katie O’Hara

A BETTER WORKPLACE FOR ALL

Effective workplace communication is imperative to organizational success and benefit from supporting the female voice. Men, if you want to support your female coworkers: become an ally, actively listen, and encourage their participation. Women, take advantage of and create opportunities to share your voice. By actively participating, you inspire other women to speak up, amplify each other’s messages, and help create an organizational culture that supports equality.