Five ways women can establish a leadership presence – and get heard in meetings

Do you often find yourself overlooked at work for the more prestigious projects? Left out of important sub groups? Ignored, interrupted or talked over at meetings? Or worse, do others take credit for ideas you voice?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, it’s likely that you’re a woman. Why? Because the battle for equality in the workplace doesn’t just stop at the money we earn (the gender pay gap in the UK is currently a dismal 18.4%, and 78% of companies pay men more).

Nor does it stop at gender representation on boards (again, the UK is lagging with women occupying just 6.4% of all full-time executive roles in the top FTSE 250 firms). We’re also still far from being treated as equals around the meeting table.

An article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the extent of the battles women are still facing being taken seriously in meetings:

“… 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.”

So what can we do? We can’t afford to sit back and wait for the world (or even just our own company) to wake up to the power and influence of women, and give us a platform to be heard. Nor can we simply hope others will hear our ideas, take them seriously and give us the credit we deserve.

Instead we need to empower ourselves and learn strategies and techniques to ensure that we establish our own leadership presence – and become the person around the table at meetings everyone listens to.

To help you achieve this, here are five ways you can establish a leadership presence – and get heard in meetings.

1) Work on feeling more confident

If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re going to have a tough time selling yourself and your ideas to others. So a good starting point is to change the way you feel. And this is more achievable than it might sound to you right how.

True, overcoming a lifetime of negative inner talk can be a tough job. But it IS possible if you’re prepared to work at it. It’s all about switching out old, unhelpful habits, and replacing them with positive, new thoughts and beliefs.

Think of it as similar to physical habits. If you’re used to doing something, like biting your nails for example, it becomes an unconscious habit. When you first stop biting your nails you may find yourself doing it without thought. But if you make yourself consciously aware it’s happening, you can stop yourself.

Initially it will feel hard changing a long-standing habit. But over time, you gradually get used to it. You find you’re not biting your nails without realising as often. With persistence, over time you can stop completely. And one day you suddenly realise that you’re not biting your nails at all any more – and you don’t miss it.

The same applies to your thoughts; they’re an unconscious habit. But just like biting your nails, you can stop that habit and replace it with a healthier one, if you wish and if you put in the effort.

Changing our habitual thoughts or inner voice aside, there are some other tactics you can use to give yourself a confidence boost.

One exercise that can help you get a different, more positive (and realistic) perspective on yourself is to ask other people how they see you. You can ask them face-to-face if you both feel comfortable, or ask them to write 10 words that describe you.

This can often be a powerful, very emotional exercise as you realise how differently others see you, compared to your own warped perception of yourself, and discover a treasure trove of qualities you’re probably overlooking.

Another helpful way to eliminate your inner critic is to consciously reframe situations. If something didn’t go your way, or perhaps you got something wrong, don’t allow yourself to chalk it up as yet more proof you’re a failure.

Instead, tell yourself it was a good learning experience. Look for evidence of what went well, and honestly evaluate what didn’t. What influences were out of your control? And what can you take from this to get a different outcome next time?

Finally, boost your self-confidence with small wins. Set yourself small, realistic, achievable goals and celebrate your successes. 

If you need help working on your confidence, you may find these articles useful:

 2) Watch your tone of voice

It’s widely observed that, in professional situations, women are often interrupted by men. And, while the term ‘mansplaining’ has become all-too familiar, did you know there was another term – ‘hepeat’ – that describes the phenomenon of a man repeating a woman’s idea and taking credit for it?

While stealing anyone’s idea is unforgivable, ignoring women in a meeting may not simply be discrimination; it could be down to science.

Research shows that women’s and men’s voices activate a completely different part of the male brain. The vibration and number of sound waves in the female voice apparently makes it harder for men to decipher what we’re saying. When processing a woman’s voice, men use a more complex, auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices.

The male voice, on the other hand, is processed via a simpler brain mechanism. This makes their speech more easy to hear and understand.

So what can you do to stop being talked over, dismissed and even have your ideas stolen by men? A good starting point is by being conscious of your tone of voice, and moderating it to help you be heard.

While it’s certainly not fair that women should need to have to consider changing the way we speak in order to be heard, right now it’s the reality of the world we live in. So here’s what Harvard Business Review recommend:

“… women need to ensure that they are seen as composed and in command of their emotions. It is not so much what women say as how they say it. They need to keep an even tone, not shift to a higher pitch when under duress. They need to speak deliberately and avoid signaling frustration through sarcasm or curtness.”

Here are some tone of voice tips you may find helpful:

  • Breathe properly – breathe deeply from your diaphragm. You’ll feel more relaxed, come across as more confident, and improve the depth of your voice.
  • Slow down – we tend to speed up when we’re nervous (our voice also gets higher). So consciously try to slow your voice down. It will make you easier to understand, and you’ll come across as confident and in control; someone who knows they need to be heard, and can afford to take the time to make their point.
  • Check your posture – allow your voice to project clearly and confidently by lifting your chin and tilting your head slightly, and relax your shoulders.
  • Drink water – lubrication is vital for maintaining vocal function. So avoid dehydration by cutting down on tea and coffee before a meeting, and drink plenty of water instead.

(We cover using your voice effectively in meetings in greater depth here, with five tips for a brilliant vocal presentation.)

3) Choose your words wisely

It’s not just how you speak, but what you say that can influence others’ perceptions of you. So you need to choose your words carefully, and avoid unconscious expressions and words that diminish you.

The first word to banish from your professional vocabulary is ‘sorry’. So what can you say instead? One solution is to flip it. So rather than saying “Sorry I’m late” try “Thank you for waiting for me”. And rather than interjecting in a meeting or conversation with “Sorry to interrupt” try “I have something to add” or “I’ve got an idea”.

(Interestingly one study found that men don’t apologise less because they see it as a sign of weakness, but women simply judge their own actions more harshly.)

While we’re on the subject of taboo words, you can consign these three words to the sin bin too!

4) Enlist an ‘amplifier’

Even with these skills you may still fight to get heard in a meeting. So what can you do? One tactic employed by some successful women (and men) is to partner up with an ‘amplifier’. This is someone who amplifies your message by repeating it and stating, if needed, who had the idea first – reminding the room that you have something to say.

With a reciprocal agreement, you can both ensure that each other’s ideas are heard (and properly credited) at meetings. This was a strategy famously used by women in the White House during the Obama administration.

5) Use confident body language 

Did you know that 55% of of communication is not what you actually say (this accounts for just 7%) but body language? (Interestingly, bearing in mind point two, 38% of communication is tone of voice.)

So, to ensure that you’re conveying the right impression at work and in meetings, you need to consciously consider your body language. And in particular, you need to make sure that you are projecting confidence and power.

So how can you do this? Here are two techniques that can help.

1) Take up more space

People who lack confidence tend to try to make themselves disappear by contracting themselves to take up as little space as possible.

So do the opposite. Show that you are comfortable and deserve to be where you are by owning your space at the meeting table. Lean back in your chair (rather than hunching over the table) with your shoulders relaxed, back and wide.

If your chair has arm rests, use these too. If not, place your arms on the table slightly away from your body. And keep your hands relaxed, rather than tensed into a tight fist, or nervously playing with a pen.

2) Use ‘steepling’

This simple body language tip is used around the world to demonstrate confidence. And it’s simply making a ‘steeple’ of your fingers. It’s a particularly popular technique used by politicians like Angela Merkel, as observed by political scientist and NYU professor Ian Bremmer:

(Giving a presentation at work? Here are 15 more body language techniques you can try.)

Women need to be heard in meetings

If you have something to contribute to a meeting, you need to be heard. You also have the right to take appropriate credit for your suggestions and ideas. So we hope the strategies in this article will help you establish your leadership presence, and gain the respect you deserve.

Martina Sanchez is an entrepreneur and content marketing specialist at Lucky Assignments and Gum Essays. She loves writing and sharing useful tips on her blog about digital marketing, leadership and business.

Photo by Antenna