I’ve always heard from the women that I work alongside, mentor, and from the members of Women in the Boardroom that they struggle to speak up in meetings. Sometimes it’s lack of confidence, but more often than not, the reason is because of interruptions from men. And that unprofessional interruption isn’t limited to just in-person meetings.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, women are still finding themselves struggling to speak up or to hold the floor in their virtual meetings as well. In fact, 45% of women business leaders claim to be struggling with this problem.
This is an issue that occurs at all levels for women, even for the justices that serve on Supreme Court! Our women Supreme Court Justices are often interrupted by their male counterparts or lower-ranking advocates presenting arguments to the court, which is astounding. Many of us were able to watch this very issue unfold, live, in the latest vice-presidential debate. So, what can women do to ensure that they’re heard when they do make the decision to speak up and how can men get out of the way and give women the floor?
Show Up, Stand Up, Speak Up!
I always tell the members of Women in the Boardroom to “Show up, stand up, and speak up!” And a lot of these women do, but that doesn’t mean they have to bully their way to do so each and every day and be seen as the stereotypical “aggressive woman”. As a culture and society, we need to recognize that men are constantly drowning out the voices of their female peers and that women are made to feel that they should take up as little space as possible.
I remember during a college sociology course I took, my professor discussed how women are less inclined to put their arm on an open armrest on a bus, in or theatre or plane, for example, and that men are more likely to use that armrest without a second thought. Ever since, I’ve made it a point to take up space and to use the armrest I paid for in whatever situation I’m in.
The same goes for meetings, women feel that they need to be succinct in expressing their ideas, thoughts, or feelings and can be reticent or indirect when doing so. Whereas, a man feels comfortable building on his ideas (or a woman’s ideas expressed merely seconds before). Men also may be more critical, argumentative and speak longer than women and this is because they don’t have to concern themselves with being likeable. Just the other day, a woman tweeted in response to an article I posted, that her performance reviews reflected the need for her to smile more. How ridiculous is that?
And no wonder women are feeling timid when taking center stage, it’s not just our ideas up for critique, it’s our demeanor, our appearance – down to our smiles.
Don’t Worry What Others May Think
To be candid, as women, we need to block out the buzz of these types of criticisms, continue to stand up, show, up and speak up, and do so in the same way that our male colleagues would; without the concern of what others will think of us and with the mindset that we must quickly eschew any ludicrous critiques. Simply, approach the situation as if you are a white man. And if you witness another female coworker being interrupted, do your best to call out the interruption and circle back to her.
How Men Can Support Women In the Corporate Space
And what should men be doing? Well, what they should have been doing all along – waiting for their female colleagues to finish their thoughts, ardently acknowledge their ideas, thanking them for sharing, thus creating space for women to continue to do so in future meetings. Because the only way to end this practice of interrupting women, is to engage in the act of ending it.
If you’re a man and you’re aware that this is a problem happening in a meeting you attend, stop other men from interrupting the women in that meeting by calmy stating something like, “I appreciate you sharing your opinions on that John, but I don’t believe Heather had finished completing her thought.” Or by providing positive reinforcements to women who are speaking up, “Lilli shared an excellent point about our latest efforts with project Z, and I’d like to hear more from her on that.”
With a, hopefully, stronger than ever focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity, companies need to make changes purposefully, putting into to practice what they preach. And women and men at all levels can get involved in this effort to evolve by supporting women in the professional space; women by continuing to speak up and men by stepping out of the way.
If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, Reach out to me directly!
Sheila Ronning, Founder, Women in the Boardroom.
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