By Macy Moore, Grow Wire contributor
⏰ 6-minute read
Women are underrepresented in corporate leadership. This imbalance reflects in the amount of time women spend talking at work versus men.
As a result, women (and other minority groups) often feel their ideas and opinions go “unheard” at work.
Grow Wire asked real women in corporate roles to share their stories and tips about getting their voices heard in business meetings and conversations.
In corporate leadership, women are underrepresented versus the population. While their representation is approaching 50% of the workforce in many fields, women lag behind in terms of senior roles. Less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, according to a 2018 Pew Research report. (That’s equal to the percentage of men in this category with the name James. Yep, you read that right.)
This imbalance reflects in the amount of time each gender spends talking at work. A recent study of company conference calls from the past 19 years found that men spoke 92% of the time. This is partly because males outnumber females at work and partly “because men just talk more,” a Bloomberg analysis noted.
Today, companies are making solid efforts to promote female leadership. However, and even despite this, when it comes to workplace communication, some women find it difficult to express their ideas. Especially in a room full of senior leadership, getting your thoughts heard (and taken seriously) as a woman can seem easier said than done.
Companies are making solid efforts to promote female leadership. However, and even despite this, when it comes to workplace communication, some women find it difficult to express their ideas.
This concept also applies to other minority groups in the workplace, including those of minority ethnicities and those who are new to an organization, younger than other team members or introverted. These groups -- and yes, even folks who don’t fall into those categories -- can find it challenging to articulate ideas with confidence at work. They frequently leave meetings or conversations feeling their opinions didn’t get the airtime that others’ did or weren’t considered with the same weight.
In search of tactics to combat this issue, Grow Wire turned to real women from our professional network and social media community for real advice on “getting heard” at work. Here are their responses.
“I was prepared for that meeting, and I had backup.”
Allie Janoch is now the CEO of Mapistry, an environmental compliance company that she co-founded and secured VC funding for. But taking the lead and speaking up on projects didn’t always come naturally to her. Janoch said she has vivid memories of facing social anxiety at work prior to her leadership days.
“When you are anxious about public speaking, meeting new people or making unscheduled telephone calls, feeling heard can be a challenge,” she said. “It means that you only feel comfortable speaking up in small groups where you know everyone.”
Janoch recalls a defining moment in overcoming this anxiety. Prior to Mapistry, she encountered a scenario in which she wanted to present a new idea involving a significant pivot in the company she worked at. She first brought up the idea with her direct boss. While he was open to the change, he lacked the interest, passion and drive Janoch felt. So, ahead of her team’s next meeting with the CEO, she carefully planned a presentation of her ideas and secured support from her colleagues.
Then, she took the reins.
“At the meeting, I think it is safe to say that I hijacked the agenda,” Janoch said jokingly. “I presented my suggestions and encouraged the others on the engineering team to back me up.”
“At the meeting, I think it is safe to say that I hijacked the agenda. I presented my suggestions and encouraged the team to back me up.”
Her boldness eventually impacted the company’s overall direction, she said. In other words, her opinion was heard.
“The company did not change direction overnight, but within a few months, the CEO had largely come around to my suggestions,” Janoch said. “I believe that some of the keys to making this successful were that I was prepared for that meeting, and I had backup.”
“I try to always come from a place of collaboration and respect.”
Amanda Afeiche said she hasn’t experienced gender-related issues in her role at T3 Micro, a manufacturer of luxury hair tools. She credits this to her organization’s female-oriented industry. However, Afeiche said she didn’t always feel her ideas were taken seriously at previous companies.
“I think [feeling unheard] happens to everyone, whether you are male or female, at some point in your career,” she said. In overcoming the problem, “I found it very helpful to get buy-in from other people in the organization. Oftentimes, when you involve others in the decision-making process, it makes it easier to have your ideas accepted.”
At one point, Afeiche was one of five female managers at a mostly male company, and she also happened to be the youngest. To stay ahead of the curve, she asked one of the more tenured managers to mentor her and scheduled bimonthly one-on-ones.
“After we built a relationship, he became a natural champion for me,” Afeiche said. “This started to change the culture and thinking on the executive team. The company did not make a complete change, however, I did notice some small changes that were positive for female employees.”
"The company did not make a complete change, however, I did notice some small changes that were positive for female employees.”
When it comes to voicing your opinion and ensuring you “get heard,” Afeiche said collaboration is key.
“There is a fine line between being heard and annoyingly pushing your agenda,” she said. “I try to always come from a place of collaboration and respect for all decision-makers and all views. Eventually, you will grow to become a partner to those around you.”
“I start with a positive and stand for what I believe.”
Both self-awareness and strength are helpful in ensuring your ideas and opinions are heard at work, according to Vanina Bel-Madella, director of JAPAC sales, strategy and operations at NetSuite.
“I would be mindful of my tone, start with a positive and stand for what I believe,” she wrote on LinkedIn when asked to advise women who feel “unheard” in meetings.
“If there is another woman in the room, try to amplify their ideas and voices,” she added.
“It’s about not getting frustrated that you are not being heard.”
Nicky Tozer knows what it’s like to be the only woman in a room full of men. As the EMEA VP at NetSuite, she said that for most of her sales career, she was either the only female or one of a few on her various teams.
“An important lesson I learned quickly was to pick my battles,” Tozer said. “If you fight for everything, you just become known as the person that battles for everything and not for the content and ideas you bring. Not everything is worth winning, and sometimes the best thing to do is to hold back until there is something really important to you to go after.”
“An important lesson I learned quickly was to pick my battles."
She recalls a conversation about strategy with three men during which she noticed that one of them was looking over her shoulder, clearly not listening. Tozer has felt unheard in similar situations since and developed a strategy for handling them: She adds a comment that references her role in the company, offers to help her colleague via access to her team and then leaves the conversation. Tozer said this flow leaves her feeling generally “heard” the next time around.
“On the whole, to me, it’s about not getting frustrated that you are not being heard, because that will just make things worse,” she said.
“For me, it comes down to confidence.”
We spoke with an associate at a VC fund who asked to remain anonymous and said she doesn’t feel that belonging to the female minority in the VC field has impeded her success. However, that doesn’t mean she has always felt “heard” when presenting her ideas and thoughts in meetings. She said that when it comes to senior leadership, both male and female, she has noticed there is often an issue with empowering junior employees.
“I’ve encountered [senior leadership] that doesn’t use their position of authority to empower people more junior to them but rather uses their position in a more boastful manner, almost in an effort to retain their position of power,” the associate said. “Part of it is a gender issue, but part of it is just about being more junior in the workplace.”
“I’ve encountered [senior leadership] that doesn’t use their position of authority to empower people but rather uses their position in a more boastful manner."
Her advice to junior team members is to preempt those steamroller situations with a statement like, “I know you had this idea; I’ve been giving it some thought as well, and …”
Statements like these can help senior leadership notice that junior colleagues have not only ambition but also what it takes to be more than just task-doers, she said. In turn, they may be more inclined to hear new ideas.
“For me personally, it comes down to confidence,” the associate continued. “If I feel prepared and confident in what I’m doing and saying, I’m much more likely to speak up.”
From a gender perspective, she added, women speaking up in the workplace will have a net benefit across the board. So too will managers providing their junior team members bigger shoes to grow into. The associate said that senior managers are far more respected for lifting up employees by hearing their opinions versus attempting to portray themselves as the mighty, all-knowing boss.
“It’s an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront,” she said. “Especially with senior leadership that are male, it’s a bit of an old habit to be the man in the room that takes center stage when really, it would be a better sign of good leadership if they empowered the people around them.”
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