Female Executives Urged to Find Their Voices
After hearing repeatedly that successful women executives feel less effective in business meetings, three partners at Flynn Heath Holt decided to take a systematic look at the issue.
Kathyrn Heath, Jill Flynn and Mary Davis explained in “Managing Yourself: Women, Find Your Voice,” published in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review, that they began in 2012 by examining 360-degree feedback they had collected on 1,100 female executives at or above the vice president level, reviewing more than 7,000 surveys in all.
“We found widespread evidence in the executives’ comments and in those of their colleagues and managers that meetings were a big stumbling block,” they wrote.
To corroborate its finding, the Charlotte, N.C., leadership development firm surveyed 270 female managers in Fortune 500 organizations, more than half of whom reported that meetings were a significant issue or a “work in progress.”
In addition, to get an idea of how the gender gap plays out in the highest level meetings, they interviewed 65 top executives, including both male and female CEOs, from companies including JPMorgan Chase, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Lowe’s Time Warner and eBay.
“In all our investigations, we found that men and women generally agreed on the problems but often disagreed on their causes,” said the authors.
“The male managers we interviewed were well aware that women often have a hard time making their otherwise strong voices heard in meetings, either because they’re not speaking loudly enough or because they can’t find a way to break into the conversation at all.”
More than a third said that when their female coworkers do speak up, they don’t articulate a strong point of view; half said that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize often, and fail to back up opinions with hard facts.
As for female executives, who remain vastly outnumbered in boardrooms, the authors said they report feeling “alone, unsupported, outside their comfort zones and unable to forcefully advocate for their perspectives. “
“Many women admitted that they do get rattled when they’re challenged. In fact, they’re uncomfortable with conflict in general. They find it unsettling when anyone receives a sharp public rebuke, and they often brood and second-guess themselves long after meetings are over,” wrote the trio.
Read more: Steps to improve meeting performance ...
After identifying the problems, Heath, Flynn and Davis suggested there are several practical steps that female executives can take to help them become more comfortable and effective.
First, they should master the pre-meeting.
“We’ve found that men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on their minds,” the authors explained.
“Women could go a long way toward addressing the problem of timing and their feelings of isolation if they sounded out colleagues and built allies in this way. They need to get in on what several men described as the ‘meetings before the meetings,’ where much of the real work happens.”
Women should also prepare to speak.
“Many women we talked with prefer to pitch their ideas in formal presentations rather than in the more conversational way many men favor. Our advice to female executives, as counterintuitive as it sounds, is prepare to speak spontaneously,” they said. “When the conversation advances rapidly, holding the floor requires the use of ‘muscular words’ as one male executive put it — active, authoritative, precise language that shows you’re taking ownership of your opinions.”
In addition, women should keep an even keel, the authors advise.
“In our 360-degree feedback survey analysis, we learned that when women said they felt‘passionate about an idea or an opinion, their male managers and colleagues often perceived too much emotion,” they said.
It should not be the female executives’ burden alone to help ensure their voices are heard, argued Heath, Flynn and Davis.
“First, companies should fix broken feedback mechanisms. Fully 68% of the women in our study said they seldom receive any direct feedback about their meeting behavior. Managers need to overcome their reluctance about giving direct feedback on this area of development issues,” they wrote. “Next, at the risk of stating the obvious, leaders need to invite more women to the table. When a woman walks into a meeting and finds that only two of the 15 people present are women, it takes a toll. Peer support and role models make a difference.”
Finally, the authors said bosses need to proactively pull women into the conversation.
“During our interviews, we asked 30 high-ranking women to name the one thing they would change about how men treat them in meetings. Thirty-eight percent said, ‘Ask us direct questions’ or ‘Bring us into the discussion.’”
They concluded with the story of a female executive vice president who told them, “Eighteen years ago a male colleague (who) had been in a series of meetings with me recognized that I had something to say but was uncomfortable speaking out. One day he looked at all the guys around the table. He said he knew I had a point and he would like me to just say it and not to worry about how it might be received.
“He got the guys … to make a safe environment for me to speak up. I have been speaking up ever since," she said.
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