If you're a guy, you're welcome to stick around and read this.

But the fact is, you're much more likely to have difficulty speaking up in meetings if you're a woman.

A 2014 study (reported in the Harvard Business Review) found that women felt "alone, unsupported, outside their comfort zones, and unable to advocate forcefully for their perspectives in many high-level meetings."

Five years later, the situation hasn't changed, according to Valerie Di Maria, principal at the10company, a strategic consulting firm whose services include VOICES, communications and leadership coaching for women.

"Many women still struggle with defining their role in meetings," says Di Maria. "For example, women believe that if they're not on the agenda, or if they're not experts on the topic being discussed, they don't have the opportunity to speak."

The problem is that women who stay silent are perceived as being less-valuable contributors.

"Your reputation depends on how you show up," explains Di Maria. "If you're not in the game, it looks like you're on the sidelines. Even worse are those who sit quietly taking notes. We are not note takers; we're smart business people with a voice and a viewpoint." 

How can you express that viewpoint even if you find certain meetings daunting? Di Maria offers these five strategies:

1. Understand that you can contribute on the basis of your experience and perspective, not just your direct expertise.

Di Maria recalls that when she first assumed a senior communicator role at a corporation, she thought that the only time she could share her viewpoint in a leadership meeting was when the topic related to communication. "It took me a while to realize that I was a businessperson just like all the guys on the leadership team," she says. "So I could contribute perspectives on finance, operations, human resources, and other issues."

2. Prepare.

Before you enter the room, there's no substitute for spending time planning what you might say. Most people can't just walk into a meeting and talk about any subject. "It helps to do some homework on what's going to be covered," advises Di Maria.

The method I use to prepare? Review the minutes or notes from the last meeting (if they're available) and actually read the "pre-read," background material sent out before the meeting. Since most participants skim the pre-read (at best), if you spend time on it, you're ahead of the game. Once you've gotten up to speed, write down three to four comments or ideas to share.

3. Ask questions.

Sometimes the best way to participate is to ask the smartest questions in the room. Di Maria is an advocate of doing external research on the topic to be discussed. Find out how this issue is being covered in the media. Determine what competing companies are doing in the space. 

With that knowledge, create a list of questions. I believe that even basic questions have value. As one client told me after I asked a series of "simple questions" about a change initiative: "Thanks for posing those essential questions. We're not good at getting down to the basics of an issue. We tend to plunge ahead and realize later that we're missing key information."

4. Get on the agenda.

I've been focusing on speaking up when you don't have a formal role, but there are certain times when the best way to get airtime is to ask for it. And meeting organizers are often looking for topics, especially those that are fresh and different. 

You don't have to wait for when you are giving a formal report; you may want to introduce an issue that relates to others being discussed. Or you may have some data to share. Or, if you're a provocateur (like me), you may plunge in and suggest a quick brainstorming session on an important topic. I've found that facilitating an interactive session creates a different lead role than just discussion.

5. Take risks.

At a certain point, says Di Maria, you need to put yourself out there. Even if those in the meeting disagree with what you have to say, it's not fatal. As long as you're thoughtful, expressing your viewpoint is more valuable than saying nothing.

"I cringe when I think back on meetings where I really wanted to say something, but I wasn't confident enough to do so," Di Maria says. "But I never regretted when I did speak up. Even if my idea wasn't accepted, I felt I contributed to the discussion and made a positive impression."

After all, says Di Maria, "it's only one meeting." And the more you take calculated risks, the more you'll gain experience and increase self-assurance.

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
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