Can you be heard from your seat at the table?

Can you be heard from your seat at the table? by Jan Hills at

by Jan Hills, Head Heart + Brain —

You've made it! You have a seat at the table. Your colleagues (all male) congratulate you and welcome you warmly. Then they talk amongst themselves.

Oh well, maybe it's just the first meeting and you need to watch and learn before your contribution is heard. After all they must want to hear it. All the data says having a woman at the top table improves problem solving and even the bottom line results.

A report published by Credit Suisse last year said companies with at least one woman director received a better return on their investments compared with companies with all-male boardrooms.

And companies where women made up at least 15% of senior management were 50% more profitable than those where fewer than 10% of senior managers were female.

But as you might expect another study from a group of German, Dutch and Belgian researchers found "the mere representation of females on corporate boards is not related to firm financial performance if other factors are not considered".

If women are in the minority in a room that is hostile to them, they are unlikely to be able to have a positive effect the study suggests.

Women hold back

The evidence shows that women hold back in discussions. You might think they become more forthright with seniority, when perhaps they're no longer deferring to men. But no. 

At the Yale School of Management, Victoria Brescoll has examined the idea that the more senior a woman is, the more she makes a conscious effort to rein back her verbal contribution – the reverse of how most men handle power.

In the first of two experiments, men and women were asked to imagine themselves as either the most senior figure or the most junior in a meeting. Brescoll found that, unsurprisingly those men imagining themselves as senior said they would talk more than juniors, but women imagining they were senior said they would talk the same amount as the more junior women. Asked why, the women said they didn’t want to be disliked, or to be seen as out of line. 

In Brescoll’s follow up experiment, men and women rated a female CEO (fictitious) who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.

Girls are socialised to be polite

Women hold back because of how they are socialised to be polite according to linguist Tannen from Georgetown University. This means they talk less in mixed sex meetings. In our research on Gender in the Workplace one of the Head Heart + Brain survey participants said: "At school I won a prize for 'manners'. Now I realise what that meant was that I kept quiet." 

Girls are rewarded for taking turns, listening carefully, not swearing, being polite, and resisting interrupting – in ways we do not expect of boys. Boys' rowdy behaviour is dismissed as part of their nature, at least in Western culture. (There is some evidence that boys are expected to adopt a more polite and controlled manner in Asian societies.)

Men interrupt women

Men and women are clearly socialised to communicate differently, and this extends to signals about power in workplace hierarchies. Research on interrupting dates back to a small sample of conversations recorded at the University of California in 1975 which revealed that in 11 conversations between men and women, men interrupted 46 times, compared with women only twice. 

Almost 40 years later things don’t seem to have changed: a 2014 study at George Washington University found that when men were talking with women, they interrupted 33% more often than when talking with men. Women in the study rarely interrupted their male conversation partners (an average of once in a three-minute conversation).

This is also true of corporate senior managers. Male bosses are seldom talked-over by the people who work for them, especially if the subordinate is a woman; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates. 

And this is not just happening in the corporate work place. Studies have found that male doctors interrupt their patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt their doctor – unless she is a woman. Women doctors make fewer interruptions, but are themselves interrupted more often.

It happens to judges too. US research from the Pritzker School of Law found that over a 12-year period, 32% of interruptions were of women justices, despite the fact that they made up only 24% of the positions on the bench. And gender was three times more influential as a factor determining interruptions than seniority. 

And it can happen in forums expressly addressing diversity issues. When Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet, was participating in Q&A session following a panel discussion on corporate diversity, Google's own Global Diversity and Talent Program manager pointed out to him that Schmidt was repeatedly interrupting the only woman on the panel, who happened to be the Chief Technology Officer to the US government.

It's all down to speaking patterns

Also useful in understanding why this happens is the research which looks at the content and purpose of men's and women's different speaking styles. Deborah Tannen (mentioned above), has explored men's and women’s speech patterns and says that men tend to adopt a "report" talk pattern, and women a "rapport" talk pattern. Men speak to determine and achieve power and status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. 

In modern Western societies the speech patterns of men (vocal, dominant and direct) are seen as the norm by which women's speaking styles (collaborative, supportive and polite) are judged.  Well-intentioned men speak to women as they would to other men: they "cut to the chase," are critical or even impolite, and feel little need to spare the feelings of their listener. They're bewildered when their words spark anger or resentment (“He’s such a bully, I can’t get a word in”).  And women who talk like men (briefly, forcefully and interrupting) are judged harshly for coming across as rude or bitchy.

Given that in Western societies speaking (rather than listening) is considered the power position, it is no wonder that men interrupt and take the floor more often. And given that the purpose of women's conversation may be to enhance connection, it makes sense that women are much less likely to be "disrespectful" by interrupting. 

Only when women are in the majority does a different pattern of speaking emerge with women. Ethan Burris from the McCombs School of Business studied employee vocalisation at a credit union where women made up 74% of supervisors and 84% of front-line employees. He found that when women spoke up there, they were more likely to be heeded than men. 

Women say important things – when we can hear them

A non-executive board member who contributed to the our (Head Heart + Brain) research said that she noticed how often the women on the board were interrupted, whereas men were listened to without interruption. And women had less to say, but it tended to be more relevant to the topic under discussion. "I sometimes feel the men speak to remind you they are there, rather than to contribute to the debate or solving the issue," she said. 

And a male MD of a retail company told us that when his management committee had a mix of men and women, the women came up with more and more useful ideas and had a perspective on employee and customer issues that men lacked.

This is supported by research carried out at Brigham Young University and Princeton which showed that, at a mixed table, women take up significantly less conversation time – 75% less than men – but the decisions made can be radically different if they depend on consensus-building. "When women participated more, they brought unique and helpful perspectives to the issue under discussion," says Chris Karpowitz from Brigham Young. "We're not just losing the voice of someone who would say the same things as everybody else in the conversation." 

The advantages of women's speaking

Women interrupt less, and appear to listen more: this could be encouraging a bottom-up communication of feedback and ideas. Burris has found this style generates more input from employees, harvesting more ideas and information about issues and how they could be resolved.

This inherent diversity could make for wider-ranging, more inclusive, more creative communications at work. We assume that is what is happening at those companies who do allow, even encourage senior women to speak up and contribute to solving problems and improving the bottom line. 

So, if you are a women with a seat at the table but struggling to be heard here are some tried and tested methods which involve how you use your voice as well as your body language, both effective ways of signalling power.

If you're continually interrupted, have some prepared responses ready and practice holding up your hand to signal you want the interrupter to hold on. Then say your version of:

"There are a few more essential points I need to make. Could you delay a moment while I do that? "

"I know your feedback will be invaluable – can you hold that idea until I’m done?" 

And lean in, literally, you are much less likely to be interrupted if you are in people's eye line. Look people in the eye and think strategically about where you sit. You want to be able to catch the eye of the chair easily, don’t site next to them sit within their eye line a little way down the table. And if it's all getting tense, use humour. One client told us when she was criticised for being too studied and not passionate about an issue she spent the rest of the meeting thumping the table before each point. It was silly she said, but people appreciated the humour.

Jan Hills is a respected leadership consultant; her company Head Heart + Brain works with leaders and organisations in the UK, Europe and Australia. She recently published Brain-savvy Woman (with her daughter Francesca). The book uses an understanding of science, mainly neuroscience to review myths about gender in the workplace and to provide practical guidance for women and men on how to be successful in their career. She also runs the Brain-savvy Woman's on-line career management programme.


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