3 tips for women to gain more power in business meetings

There were many business days working for a big corporation when all I seemed to do was go from meeting to meeting for about 8 hours.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200. I would often think to myself that maybe all my role demanded was attending a never ending stream of meetings, until I finished the meetings and realised that I still had the actual work to do. Meetings can be downright annoying and most of the productivity articles will tell you to minimise the amount of time you spend in meetings.  Yeah right. Management guides have advocated for standing meetings, informal catch ups and business communication software to find ways to avoid meetings.  Implementing these tools and tactics only involved more meetings.

My opinion is that we will never find a way to cut down and keep down the amount of meetings.  Face to face interaction, despite the best software tools or video conferencing, is essential to gain a level of comfort for whom you are working with and the opportunity to read their body language.  If it is true that we don’t do deals with entities, that we do deals with people, then having face to face meetings to get comfortable with and know the people in our business relationships is fundamental to every good deal.  Internally, our relationships with cross functional groups are critical to our success and many misunderstandings have been averted or resolved with face to face meetings.

But as much as meetings can be a way to gain in esteem and grow business relationships, I have seen just as many examples of people losing tremendous support and good will, due to the poor handling of their performance in business meetings.  Whilst doing your reputation harm in a business meeting is not a gender specific affliction, meeting performance is an area where I have observed women tend to falter more frequently.  Personally I often struggled to contain my outward frustration, when unable to get a group on the same page, particularly when the common sense direction was being ignored.  And that happens.  Because many times cross functional groups have conflicting KPI’s within an organisation and despite our best efforts, we can’t progress our agenda due to the mismatched priorities of our business partners.

However, there are times when the momentum is on your side and a meeting misstep can torpedo your agenda. The most common ways in which women lose ground in business meetings, is by either failing to speak up effectively and having their ideas stolen or speaking up too aggressively and getting defensive if debate arises.  In both of these circumstances, harm can be done to the women’s professional persona, which can sometimes hurt leadership aspirations.

And that sucks.

With all the job performance demands and business challenges, having how you speak and act scrutinised or twisted against you, is another burden to bear on the long road to success.  I hear you.  And if happiness stems from feeling comfortable in your own skin, all this self analysis and modifying your personality to fit the male dominated business culture can make you feel annoyed, frustrated and like an idiotic robot fake.

So how do you balance being the real you, with a corporate persona that will be palatable to the male hierarchy and open up leadership opportunities?

Needless to say, there is no substitute for experience and time, however below are some things to be aware of and practice, so that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot whilst you are gaining that all important life experience.

1. Avoid the use of passive words and body language when advocating your ideas

Social conditioning has no doubt left you with the unmistakeable impression that everyone likes agreeable, passive women, who are content to stand in the background and not make waves. When women try to speak up they are labelled bossy, bitchy or nagging and women in business quickly learn to stifle their opinions in an attempt to be more likeable and avoid conflict.  In meetings, this behaviour predicates using words like “maybe”, “perhaps” or phrases like “I could be wrong, but”, “I’m sure this is not right, but”, before you contribute an idea to a group discussion.

What usually happens then is someone else, usually a man, swoops in like a seagull on a chip and states your idea in more assertive language and then gets the credit for it.

Hands up who has experienced that little gem.

This is a tough habit to break, because if public speaking is tough, speaking off the cuff to a group of your peers or superiors can be even more terrifying.  If you are one of the senior leaders in the meeting, putting forward your ideas is much easier.  But if you are one of the more junior in a meeting, particularly in an area where you are not familiar with or very experienced, fear of making a mistake and saying something foolish, can bring out passive language and uncertainty in body language.

So, before you go into a meeting, particularly one where you are out of your comfort zone;

  • take a moment to bring your awareness to the task at hand
  • if you are going to be more junior in the group, recognise that and steel yourself against your anxiety
  • realise that expectations for your performance in the meeting are benchmarked with your seniority, so if you are not one of the top people in the meeting, no one is expecting much from your contribution
  • this means you are given more latitude to make mistakes, so use it to your advantage
  • if you have an idea, state it confidently.  If you are right it will be an added boost to you because of the lowered expectations.  If you are wrong, you haven’t exceeded expectations but you have shown a willingness to contribute and people will respect you for that.

Fear of being wrong is tough to master and when we are out of our comfort zone, it is very difficult to get past our anxiety to contribute our ideas. But don’t let your nerves lead to your ideas being stolen, because you didn’t own them and speak up confidently.

2. Avoid being the note taker

Ok, so this sounds crazy right?  Or maybe not. Have you ever observed how often it is the only woman or one of the women in the room that are asked to be the scribe or message taker for a meeting?  This has happened so often in meetings I have attended, it amazes me how it is almost expected that the woman’s role in the meeting is to be the note taker and play secretary.  Now, if you are in an administrative role, fair enough, you have the skills and the role as note taker.  I am talking about the situations where there is no administrative support and the woman gets asked or even worse, assumed to be the message taker.

Not a big deal? Why bother worrying about it and just take the notes? Ah no. It is a problem.

Whilst the implication behind being assumed to be the message taker is most likely subconscious, it reeks of servitude, not leadership. And particularly in a situation where it is repeated and men do not share the responsibility, it indicates an implied second rate mentality.  I have heard the counter arguments to this; making a big deal out of nothing, a man would just get on with it and take the notes, women who focus on this are making it an issue, why would I not take the notes I just want to help. To all this I say, when the subject of being the message taker is raised, why do all eyes fall on the woman. Something in my gut makes me sure this isn’t a compliment, it is a demotion, however subtly or subconsciously delivered.

Avoiding being the message taker can be just as tricky. If you have a good relationship with your boss and you can talk it out, you are very lucky.  In most cases, rejecting the role can come across as petty or petulant and can count against you. And unless you have a very open and frank relationship with a boss you can trust, tread carefully because even raising this issue can be detrimental.

The best way I can think to deal with it, is to try and turn it to your advantage. Firstly, if asked or assumed to be note taker, say you are happy to do it to get the ball rolling until the next persons turn.  This is important.  Don’t accept the role without making it clear the role will be rotated. Secondly, see if there is the opportunity to use the note taking role for strategic reasons.  Don’t just do the bare minimum, circulate the notes with a strategic intent. Use it to highlight a missed opportunity, or showcase your skills in strategic planning or structure.  Don’t overdo it, but make sure it is known that you brought more to the task in some way than a blind scribbler.

3. Practise your quips

When I did debating at school, I was always the third chair, which meant I did most of the rebuttable.  I had the least prepared speech time and spent most of my time refuting the claims of the other side.  While this could look like it is very off the cuff, everyone who has done this role would know it takes heaps of preparation.  You need to anticipate what is going to be argued by the other side and prepare your responses in such a way that you can pivot to them seamlessly, regardless of what it said.

Debate prep is very useful for making you articulate and coherent when responding to arguments.  I am sure no professional woman would walk into a debate or a presentation without adequate preparation.  Preparation is about anticipating the questions and having responses ready to bolster your case.

However, we seldom anticipate that some of the comments in a meeting can be about matters totally unrelated to our work or the presentation we are making. For example, a stray comment about appearance, gender balance or demeanour can be off putting, even if only intended as an innocent joke or even an ice breaker.  How often have you gotten in the car and delivered a great response to the steering wheel and wished that you could have thought of that line in the meeting? So frustrating.

Here is the thing to remember.  While we may not think to much about how we look and be focusing on the work we do, other people can be focusing on how you look.  It will be noted and often commented on.

I remember once walking into a meeting with some high level administrators at a public hospital including the CEO and his team.  I was the only woman and about 20 years younger than anyone in the room and I was negotiating a large sales deal for my company.  When I sat down at the table, one of the men said to me “Come in, and don’t worry, all the grey haired guys in suits here won’t bite.” Was he trying to be funny? Yes. Was he trying to diffuse a situation which everyone had noticed? Yes again. Was there any malicious intent or mockery behind the words? Not at all. However, I got a bit uncomfortable, stammered and didn’t know what to say.  I wasn’t the slightest bit worried or intimidated by the people in the room, before or after the joke was made, but it did make me awkward because I didn’t know how to respond and wasn’t ready for it.  And when you are just about to negotiate a big deal, awkward is not your friend.  I had anticipated the questions about the deal, done my prep work on the task at hand, but didn’t consider my appearance would attract any comment.  And being commented on, made me lose my focus. The guy who made the comment wasn’t trying to throw me off my game, but he did, because I wasn’t prepared.

What I wish I would have said was something like, “That’s so good to hear, because I was thinking you must be afraid of me because I am so out numbered”. Cheeky, but with a tinge of teasing.

These days I prepare for the comments and have a few jokes up my sleeve. I still get caught off guard by some of the more outrageous comments, but I rarely get put on the back foot but them. Realising that you may be the centre of attention and comment for reasons not relating to your work, can help you stay on top if it, so you don’t lose your focus.