Surprising as it may seem, two decades into the 21st century, Women in the workplace are still, simply heard less.
Men speak for 75% of the time in decision making meetings, women are interrupted 50% of the time they speak, three times more than men and 38% of women experience having their ideas appropriated by other.
Now that the impact of the pandemic has moved the majority of meetings to online platforms such as Zoom, and Microsoft teams, has this made it easier or harder for women to make themselves heard?
Some say it harder. Many women have been socialised to keep quiet, (in the book I talk about the “princess paradigm” that pervades childhood, e.g. the meek and demure Disney princesses like Snow White!) To be heard in some meetings requires determination and verbal force and women know that they risk criticism for being too aggressive or unfeminine, if they push their way into a discussion. Consequently, many women chose to hold their peace. It is certainly much easier for women who are nervous about contributing to be invisible on a video platform. A senior figure in the church told me that Zoom was causing fewer women to speak and be heard in senior ecclesiastical meetings. If you do try and make yourself heard, it can be really hard to cut into a conversation on an online platform. I recently coached a woman who was chairing a meeting and found it all but impossible to stop one speaker to segue to the next. Some women have said they find the video format more intimidating as the “speaker view” means that when you speak your picture takes up the majority of the screen and all eyes are on you. The greater visual focus is uncomfortable for many.
Other women have said they actually find it easier to speak up in virtual meetings, that being in their own homes and not a board room and the fact that you only see the other participants in relatively small thumbnail images, makes it more comfortable. On some video platforms the audio does not encourage interruptions because when more than one person speaks no-one can be heard. In some environments this has encouraged more turn taking behaviours in people’s communication styles and that can favour women.
It’s therefore not entirely clear what the impact of zoom meetings is on women being heard. However, to ensure that it does not disadvantage you, here are the top 3 tips:
- Manage the process
The new virtual environment does require different and better chairing skills from those running meetings. Making sure that everyone is invited to speak and contribute their thoughts, (rather than just leaving it to the confident and extroverted, often men), is a chairing skill that has become more important still. It is critical to women being heard more. Why do this? because it’s just more effective if more views are contributed. It means the output is wider perspective, more ideas, and more successful solutions. Chairs need to encourage the adoption of “turn taking behaviours” to avoid the inaudible mess that happens when two people speak at once. Even if you are not chairing the meeting, you can still help ensure that you and female colleagues are heard by suggesting these improved processes to whoever is running the meeting. Speaking to the chair before a meeting starts is often very effective.
- Be seen!
Even if it doesn’t feel 100% comfortable you need to be visible and have presence in a meeting. Keep your video on and check out your lighting to ensure you can be seen and that you are not a silhouette or a shadow. It is much easier to ignore a disembodied voice! When you want to speak, use visual cues, you can use the digital hand icon but actually putting your physical hand up and waving it, is much more likely to attract the chair’s attention.
- Be heard
In the online world we have all effectively become news readers, visible only from the shoulders upward. We need therefore to create impact predominantly with our voice. We need to remember that speaking at a good volume is not just about audibility but about having presence and gravitas. This can be a problem for women as often they have been socialised to speak quietly and softly. If a woman speaks with significant volume she risks being called “shrill”, “strident” or “hectoring.” Being heard in the zoom environment, especially if you need to cut into a discussion, does require that you speak with more volume than you think you need. You do not need to shout but you do need to speak at more than a conversational level to have impact. This might feel weird sitting in front of your computer at home, but it is a learned skill that the new demands of the digital world require.
Managed well, the new digital environment we all work in, could be a tremendous force for good in amplifying women’s voices and helping gender balance. It does require some conscious thought and skill development to seize the opportunities.
About the author
Patricia Seabright is a speaking coach and the author of She Said! A guide for millennial women to speaking and being heard, published by Panoma Press, priced £14.99, available online and from all good bookstores.
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