Speaking up: how women are making themselves heard in meetings

Article4 min19 February 2019By Dana Worth

If you’re female and you’re having difficulty being heard in meetings, you’re not alone. A different approach could be just what you need. Here are some approaches to speaking up that have worked for other women.

In an age where nearly one-third of both the key managers of all companies, and the directors of top companies, in Australia are female, it seems incongruous that women in business still struggle to make their voices heard.

July 2018 statistics from the Australian Institute of Company Directors indicated that 28 per cent of directors in the ASX 200 were women. Meanwhile, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s 2016-17 data, 30 per cent of key management personnel were women.

So it’s not as if the female were a foreign species in business anymore.

It’s true nevertheless, and the problem is particularly acute when you’re the only woman in the meeting.

“For women, being heard is a genuine and widespread problem,” says Jane Bridge, managing partner, Boardroom Partners, a board search and advisory company that has placed many women on boards.

“We’ve had a number of women who refused board memberships because they didn’t want to be the first woman on the board,” she observes. “They’d done it before and it was too hard.”

A CFO’s experience

Alison Harrop, CFO of Dexus, can speak from personal experience about how executive women fare. She’s often in meetings where she’s the only woman.

“I attend investor briefings after our annual or half-year results are released.

The representatives at these briefings are usually men. Property is traditionally a male-dominated industry and although attitudes are changing, there is often still an unconscious bias sometimes present in the meeting room.

“The first issue is that if they don’t know me, they are unlikely to assume I’m the most senior finance person from Dexus there. Once they know who I am, their attitude changes.

“If I’m there with another executive who is male, it’s sometimes hard to get my voice heard. The non-Dexus attendees tend to direct questions at the men. I’ve got used to pouncing on a question in order to enter the conversation.”

Bridge and Harrop, along with Kathy Mac Dermott, the Property Council of Australia’s chief operating officer, have advice for women in this situation, as well as for their co-workers.

“It’s very important that you don’t sit silent during meetings. They need to know you’re there.” Alison Harrop, Dexus

What to do about it

Harrop says she has spoken to her male colleagues about the surreal man shadow she can find herself in.

“Once it’s pointed out, it’s obvious to them. We agree before the meeting that if a question is directed at our CEO, he’ll address it in the first instance in more general terms and then hand over to me, saying something like: ‘Alison can add more colour’.

“Also, we’ll agree beforehand who speaks on which topic.”

It’s telling that a woman as senior as Harrop still needs to put in work to be heard when she attends client or investor meetings.

For women still climbing the corporate ladder, every meeting can be a challenge.

“I think it’s very important that you don’t sit silent during meetings,” says Harrop. “They need to know you’re there. One thing I would recommend is to look for an entry point. I’ve always been careful about picking the right moment.

“For example, where there’s lots of debate going back and forth, you can seize the opportunity to jump in and sum up where the conversation is at, and suggest going in a particular direction.

“You are not necessarily adding anything, but it allows your voice to be heard.”

Property Council of Australia’s Kathy Mac Dermott shares her top tips:

  • While you may not always have a project on the agenda, come well prepared with an opinion on other items, armed with additional information that could enrich the discussion.

  • If there are side conversations, either pause or ask the chair to address.  A good approach is to stand up, walk, use a white board. Even stand behind the person most likely to start a side conversation.

  • After speaking, throw to another woman and ask for their point of view. This can not only reinforce your position but also provide support for other women to speak up.



Educating the board

At the board level, Jane Bridge says that, as a new person, you have an advantage. 

“You can simply ask questions about how the board works. Things like: ‘What are the rules for speaking? Do we each get a turn?’

“Asking those questions could even encourage the chair to think, well, perhaps we need some protocols around this.”

More generally, Bridge recommends that companies provide training to managers, so they encourage women to speak.

“If someone has been reserved throughout the meeting, it’s perfectly legitimate for the leader to ask whether they’d like to speak. The leader should, of course, provide warning that she or he will be asking that question if someone hasn’t had a chance to speak.”

Property Male Champions of Change

Kathy Mac Dermott is the Property Council’s main points person for the Property Male Champions of Change. This program asks senior men to make a personal commitment to encouraging and supporting diversity policies. As well as championing formal policies on gender equity, Mac Dermott says, the program functions to raise awareness of issues like women’s visibility at meetings.

“Since the Property Council took on the leadership of the property sector Male Champions of Change in 2015, I’ve noticed that our CEO Ken Morrison has adopted a technique that I think is very valuable.

“When he opens a meeting, and requests comments on the agenda, he always asks the women first.  He still gets everyone’s views. It’s become part of his approach.”

It’s the kind of approach that can improve the meeting experience of anyone who struggles to make their voice heard – and not just women.

Read on for more insights

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