Why Meetings Matter Even More for Women

Learn 5 ways to reach peak performance on the corporate stage.
July 23, 2014

A new report entitled “Why Meetings Matter Even More for Women” reveals that female executives feel they perform less effectively in high-level meetings than they do in other business situations. Kathryn Heath and Diana Faison discuss their report, available to SUCCESS readers for free download, and offer concrete advice to women, men, and organizations to help women overcome the challenges they face in the corporate meeting arena.

The researchers at North Carolina-based Flynn Heath Holt Leadership conducted a yearlong study of female executives, reviewed thousands of 360-degree evaluations, surveyed female vice president-level and higher executives and interviewed 65 male and female executives from top Fortune 500 companies to understand the role that gender plays in high-level meetings.

As you rise in an organization most of your time is spent in meetings, so it is critical that we understand what peak performance looks like in meetings, or what we’d call the corporate stage. Meetings represent a crucial opportunity for all leaders. Why? Because meetings are the main venue where business reputations are made and lost.

It is a place where bright, hardworking people can make their mark, contribute to good decisions and move their careers forward—where they can shine in the spotlight.

But in years of discussions and coaching with high-level female executives, some of the challenges we consistently hear include:

“You have to shout to be heard in meetings.”

“I don’t like to repeat what’s already been said.”

“It’s hard to read the room if there are no other women around the table.”

After extensive research, we found the problem is not that men are oblivious to the challenges women face in meetings or that men intentionally shut women out; it’s more of a Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus problem, in that there are key differences in the ways men and women perceive what happens in meetings.

Women we interviewed feel that they can’t break into the conversation or feel they’ve been “put in their place” when a male colleague dismisses their opinion.  Says one female vice president: “[Women] either don’t like the conflict or don’t know how to come back in a way that does not appear defensive. Some of it may be a lack of confidence.”

Men, for their part of the survey, see their female counterparts as lacking confidence or failing to articulate a strong point of view. Men interpreted women’s passion for a project as being “too emotional,” or cited women’s failure to back up that passion with concise, factual data.

“These are high-octane meetings that are filled with domineering personalities,” one male CEO admitted. “Women are often either quiet and tentative  or they pipe up at the wrong moment, and it sounds more like noise to some of us.”

Here are five suggestions to help women get their voice in the room and claim their space on the meeting stage:

1. Get in on the pre-meetings: Many ideas have already been vetted and decisions already made well before the actual meeting—in casual conversations passing in the hall, the elevator or walking to the train. Taking part in informal conversations before the meeting can help you understand more than what is reflected  in the written agenda.

2. Say at least three things in the meeting: Start early. “Did you see the headline about…?” or “I went to a great restaurant last night…”  This shows others you intend to speak and be a major player.  Arrive early and get a good seat—claim your space.

3. Raise your voice: Up the volume in an assertive and calm manner so your point of view is truly heard, rather than dismissed. Think of it as two clicks up on the TV remote.

4. Ask a question: Sometimes it’s easier to join the conversation with a question.

5. Advance the discussion: Like a good tennis player, be aware of where the “ball” is going versus where it is at that moment. Again, ask a good question—it can transform the conversation toward more productive direction, and you could look stellar in the process.

At Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, we have a “Red Suit Vision”—for a minimum of 30 percent of top leadership positions in corporate America to be held by women. The day is near when there are as many women in red suits around the board table as there are men in grey suits.  But until then, it’s not just women who need advice to learn and change, to achieve success.

The stakes are high for organizations, too. As more women join management ranks and climb the corporate leadership ladder, it’s critical for male executives and organizations to learn and embrace ways to ensure the valuable views of their female colleagues are heard.

Download a free report of the full research findings in PDF format here.

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