“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
I come back to the quotation above because I have been thinking again about how to shift dynamics in meetings to really draw on the talent of everyone in the room. I was in a meeting last week where we were 5 women in the room and one man and I noticed he took the space he wanted and the rest of us let him… He was dominant even though he was outnumbered by us women. We were ‘reflecting him at twice his size..’
White men tend to hold the traditional power in organisations – that of the role they are in in the hierarchy, and they are often the ones who hold the purse strings or who are in charge of resources and how they are used. Others defer to them for these reasons as well as the stuff about tall white men ‘looking like leaders’ thus being given power they may not actually deserve to hold.. other people’s deference only serves to reinforce the inequalities.
There is a cliché about women talking a lot – at work, research has demonstrated this is really not the case – and this research has been around for some years – it’s not new but still things are slow to change. Women do not speak as much as men in meetings and will be interrupted more frequently than their male colleagues. They may feel under scrutiny, less comfortable than their male counterparts…. Women who do speak up can be seen as pushy or aggressive – one person I worked for warned me about my ‘arrogance’ – I think this was probably referring to the confidence I had in dealing with senior people but was used as a way of putting me down.. Fortunately, I have also worked for male bosses who have developed, coached and encouraged me to grow and to speak my mind.
Take a look at the tool that has been developed on this site https://www.genderavenger.com/blog/genderavenger-updated-ga-tally-app – it measures the percentage of women invited to speak and how much airspace they are given in a meeting or panel discussion. There are examples too. You can use the app to start measuring meetings in which you take part ..it’s fun, depressing and revealing all at once.
For more on participation in meetings, take a look at this article https://finance.yahoo.com/news/stark-reality-men-dominate-talking-meetings-11311291 where there are links to the research.
It takes a skilled chair to make sure they are really drawing on the talent of everyone in the room given the dynamics that can develop. They need to be an excellent listener –
- picking up on interruptions right away and stopping them
- listening for men who reiterate women’s previously stated ideas in a slightly different way and making it sound like it is their idea (this happens and has been happening for years) and giving credit to the right person
- putting processes in place which make sure that all have a real say in the meeting, and decent work allocated to each person.
- giving encouragement and feedback to all
If the airspace is consistently taken up mostly by men then it will discourage women from giving their talent – they can feel like they are in an alien world – some women become so disenchanted they change jobs or set up their own business. Until organisations really look at changing everyday working practices, like how meetings are conducted, they are not drawing on women’s talents to the full – not using the brains of 50% of the population is a crazy waste of resources. I have not even started to talk about how racist stereotypes can stop black people being heard in meetings. Nor have I talked about those employees who are participating in a language which is not their mother tongue.
Catalyst has done a survey which shows that leadership behaviour is critical in creating a more inclusive culture for everyone – you can read more here : https://www.catalyst.org/research/inclusive-leadership-report/
The issue is to truly enable each individual to be able to use their talent and experience and express their point of view to contribute to the work in progress.
I dedicate this to the young women working their way up organisations now and to the men that listen and enable, especially those who have opened doors and given me fantastic opportunities.
I wish you well for this new year – may it be one where you feel fulfilled and have fun!