Why meetings matter even more for women

flynn heath holtDuring an executive committee meeting, one executive among 20 around a large conference table received a text message. It was from a colleague sitting just a few chairs away. It read: “Say something right now. Make sure your voice is heard. Ask a question.” Later, the executive learned that the CEO was planning to shrink the size of the committee. There was a general concern that a few of the individuals in the room were not contributing enough to make the cut.

Another senior leader, 15 years into a successful career as a marketing executive, had a similar experience. The executive, generally considered by peers to be assertive and insightful, was surprised when a colleague stopped by after a meeting to deliver some stern advice: “Stop acting like a facilitator. Start saying what you stand for!”

Finally, a division leader managing a $50M business unit, who according to performance feedback was widely admired and respected, had the same type of wake-up call. After failing to contribute in senior manager meetings because “you need to shout to be heard,” colleagues said the executive’s silence in strategic discussions was one reason this person had not been promoted into a C-suite role.

These three executives have a few things in common. First, they are all successful. They are ambitious and motivated to take their careers to the next level. Second, they are all well liked by colleagues and superiors; yet, they have been dinged repeatedly for a lack of engagement, lack of powerful behavior, and lack of visibility in meetings. Finally, all three of these executives are women.

Our research tells us that these stories are quite common. In a study canvassing male and female senior executives, 46% of the women we surveyed said they have significant difficulty inserting themselves into key meeting discussions. Likewise, a full 50% of men said the most important thing women should address in meeting settings is being more confident and direct, less equivocal and apologetic.

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