Meetings provide women with real opportunities to demonstrate their competence and leadership abilities, but many women find meetings highly problematic. In a 2014 Harvard Business Review survey of 270 female managers in Fortune 500 companies, more than half reported that mixed-gender meetings posed significant problems or were a “work in progress.” In our coaching practice, women tell us a variety of reasons they find meetings so difficult:

  • They can’t break into the discussions, and if they do, they are ignored, interrupted or challenged.
  • They receive little airtime.
  • Their ideas are not acknowledged until they are repeated by a man.
  • If they speak with real conviction, they are criticized for being too emotional.
  • Men interrupt and challenge them more than they interrupt and challenge other men.
  • Men pay more attention to what other men say than to what the women have to say.

Not surprisingly, men see meeting dynamics very differently. In the same 2014 survey, more than a third of the male managers said female colleagues fail to state a strong point of view, and half said that “women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly, and fail to back up opinions with evidence.” The men frequently described the women as defensive when challenged and apt “to panic or freeze if they lost the attention of the room.”

In the course of a woman’s career, there will be too many meetings attended by too many people with control over her compensation and advancement for her not to be at the top of her game. She needs to be able to use meetings as occasions to network, display her unique perspectives and showcase her abilities. Meetings are likely to be the most frequent and, perhaps, the best opportunity a woman may have to demonstrate her competence.

Mixed-gender meetings often have two separate dynamics that can work against women: piling on and idea theft. These dynamics can be overcome with attuned gender communication, which allows women to put a spotlight on their competence and warmth. Here are some practical techniques that can help overcome both dynamics.

Piling On

When key meeting participants accept a good point, men tend to restate and reinforce that point again and again; they “pile on” to show agreement and solidarity. In contrast, women tend to be uncomfortable piling on; they tend to draw distinctions, not echo agreement. When women don’t pile on, they are often perceived by the men at the meeting as not being on the team or, worse, as contrarians, or problem-makers or pessimists. This dynamic can be difficult to change.

Women must be alert to piling on. If a distinction or clarification needs to be made, she should go ahead and make it. But once consensus has been reached, it needs to be clear whether she is firmly on board – or very much off – the ship. She can do so pleasantly and in a nonconfrontational way but with no ambiguity as to where she stands on the ideas, actions and plans that emerge from the meetings in which she participates.

Women can use the piling on technique to support other women. In a recent article about female members of President Obama’s White House staff, the women shared how they used piling on to solve the problem of not being heard in meetings: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution – and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” The women on President Obama’s staff supported each other to ensure that their voices and ideas were being heard. “Obama noticed,” they reported, “and began calling more often on women and junior aides.”

Idea Theft

When a woman is the first person to make a good point, men often don’t immediately pile on. They tend to wait until a man makes the same point, and then they pile on to “his” point. In many mixed-gender meetings, it seems as if men only hear other men. Sometimes, women are lucky enough to be in meetings chaired by someone who will not tolerate idea theft, someone who is a stickler for recognizing the person who originated an idea. But not all meeting leaders are that perceptive and fair.

When a woman has made a good point that is not acknowledged by the group until it is made later by a man, she has a fundamental choice to make: She can either assert herself, claiming ownership of her idea, or she can forget that the idea was hers and proceed. To make the latter choice plays into common gender stereotypes. To make the former choice plays against the stereotypes.

With that said, a woman should never stand for idea theft. If her idea is stolen, she should pleasantly and immediately respond with a comment like, “You did a nice job of explaining my point, so let me elaborate…” A woman needs to stand up for herself in meetings, claim ownership of her ideas then and there, and live with (and be proud of) the consequences of her “aggression.” Otherwise, she may leave the meeting angry.

If a woman is friendly with someone who will be at the meeting, they can agree to “protect” each other from idea theft. If an idea advanced by either of them is about to be hijacked, the other should say something like “Jenny just said that” or “I want to hear what Jenny has to add to that.” Finding the right ally can make meetings more successful.

With your eyes open to gender stereotypes and the ways they can negatively affect your performance in meetings, you can overcome the Goldilocks dilemma to be seen as a competent and confident participant by using attuned gender communication.

This article is adapted with permission from “Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work,” by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris, copyright ©2016 by Andrea S. Kramer and Alton B. Harris and published on May 17, 2016 by Bibliomotion, Inc.