Do you find it hard to speak up at work? It seems this can be a particular issue for women – according to researchers at Brigham Young University and Princeton, in mixed meetings, 75% of speaking time is made up by men.
We know it pays to be able to contribute confidently, but it can be hard to get your voice heard if you work in a team environment with people who speak over you, interrupt you, or don’t give you space to get your thoughts heard.
Women are often perceived differently in the workplace too – so speaking coach and female leadership expert Patricia Seabright says career advice for men doesn’t always work for women.
Seabright, author of She Said! A Guide For Millennial Women To Speaking And Being Heard’ (Panoma Press, £15.99), is helping women recognise these barriers – and equipping them with the tools to overcome them and get ahead in their careers.
So, how can you ensure you are seen, heard and credited in your next big Zoom meeting? Here, we talk to Seabright to find out more…
Firstly, why do women often struggle with speaking up?
“I like to call it the 4,000 Year Silence Project,” says Seabright. “If you look at the course of history, up until very recently women have been silenced; it’s been our role to be quiet.
“In fact, one of the first written law codes in 2,500BC is that if a woman speaks out, she should have her teeth smashed out with a burnt brick. Plus, a lot of our principles are founded on the ancient Greeks, which placed emphasis on speaking and rhetoric, but ultimately it was synonymous with men. It was almost unnatural for a woman to speak in public.
“So you can see how elements of this have carried through to our current society, especially as men have traditionally been the dominant sex.”
Seabright adds that it’s only in the past four or five decades that this has been changing. “Essentially, there’s a lot of subliminal messages to say that it’s not really a woman’s job to speak out, and that we should be seen and not heard.”
Can not speaking out in meetings hold you back in your career?
“Massively. Knowledge work is always done in meetings,” says Seabright. “It’s how reputations and careers are built. Outside your main team members, people don’t tend to see what you’re doing, or if you’re any good at your job, so they form their impression in the meetings.
“Many women in a noisy, boisterous meeting might try to speak and get talked over and then feel like it isn’t worth trying. Instead, they’ll get things done behind closed doors, but the problem with that is that then they’re not visible. Even if they come up with a great solution, they won’t get the credit, because nobody heard them present it at a meeting.”
Seabright points to a recent McKinsey report which highlights a phenomenon called the ‘Broken Rung’. “At entry level you have a 50-50 split between men and women, that drops 10% by management level and goes down to 80-20 [split] by the time you get to board level management.
“A large reason for that is that women are not so visible, so people don’t think of them as leadership material. As a society, we conflate confidence with competence.”
Do you think imposter syndrome plays a big part in this?
Impostor syndrome – the fear that you’re not truly worthy and qualified of being where you are – is a familiar feeling for many of us. Seabright says that to a certain extent, we raise boys, as part of our gender-based societal conditioning, not to show any emotion, so it may be easier for them to bluff confidence. “On the other hand, girls are expected to be perfect and hold themselves to a princess-like paradigm, where failure isn’t an option,” she says.
“Girls are always holding themselves to these impossible standards. In my book, I interview a headmistress for a girl’s school who says that many of her pupils are striving so hard to be perfect, that they won’t try anything if they fear they won’t win or get an A star. This is a real problem.”
What can women do to be seen and heard in meetings?
“Ultimately, it’s really about asking why you feel like you don’t want to speak out. When you start understanding what I call the ‘Princess Principle’, which is a feeling that you have to be perfect, then you might start cutting yourself a bit of slack.”
Seabright says there are physical techniques that can help – such as breathing exercises, monitoring your body language and controlling how you harness emotion and empathy – but none of that really matters until you overcome the feeling of being uncomfortable with taking up space in a meeting.
She adds that preparing yourself for speaking events and meetings so you can practice them live is really important. “You should plan to speak at every single meeting you go to, so you can learn to get comfortable with the sensation,” she suggests.
“If you wait for the opportune moment to arrive, it may never come up, so throw your voice into the ring. Try to look at it as a way to train yourself into feeling confident.
“I would always recommend investing some money into public speaking courses too, if you’re scared of presenting, because it’s such a disproportionately important skill that can really affect the trajectory of your career.”
She adds that you could also start up a speaking group with friends, where you practice asserting yourself in conversation, and get trusted feedback on your technique.
What can managers do to help women get ahead?
“I’m a real strong believer that managers should get women-specific development and training in this area,” says Seabright. She points to examples like setting up a mentoring network, where junior women get to speak to senior female staff about overcoming specific gender-based hurdles in their careers.
“Managers can also set a meeting tone that gives women the space to present and talk,” she adds. “Instead of throwing a debate out to the room, you could direct your question to female team members who struggle to assert themselves.”
Seabright says when you allow women to stay silent in meetings, you’re training people to think that it’s normal. So don’t do it – help the female members in your team to establish a leadership presence.