Women and virtual meetings: is your voice being heard?

Great insight in this article by Andrea Grossman, Talking Talent Coach Director

A coachee recently told me that she had tried to share an opinion during an online meeting, but her voice was drowned out.  She tried a few more times but found it intimidating to observe a sea of inexpressive faces. Eventually, she tells me, she stopped trying and just sat back.

This is not the first time I have heard this.  Today’s remote work culture is having both a positive and negative impact on women in the workplace. A high percentage of women feel the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic will give them more flexibility to control their work schedule in the future. However, research is now starting to show that this same flexibility can potentially harm women’s chances of being seen and heard at work. 

Pre-Covid, the annual McKinsey and LeanIn.org Women in the Workplace report in 2019 surveyed more than 68,000 employees, finding that half of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38 per cent had others take credit for their ideas.  And this was in a face to face environment. With remote working becoming the norm, our method of communication has shifted to video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams.  In a survey last year of US working adults, Catalyst, a nonprofit organisation that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that 45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings and one in five women say they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.  So it seems that for many women, virtual meetings replicate – rather than resolve – the frequent inequities they experience in organisational life. 

The main challenge concerns how to get heard. In a typical video meeting, there is a gallery of small, passport-size faces (including your own). It can be hard to secure a valued speaking turn when all the usual visual and behavioural cues that support conversational flow are stripped away. Without these, many women report that it’s the loudest and most determined whose voices dominate and become the most influential. Those who say little or nothing risk becoming invisible.

Virtual meetings look likely to remain central to our work culture, so what can be done to help those who are finding it a challenge to be heard? Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what you can do before the meeting.  If there is an agenda, getting yourself on it will guarantee you visibility. Alternatively posting questions and ideas ahead of the meeting will demonstrate that you want to be an active participant, as well as allowing you to formulate your thoughts in advance.  Planning ahead for meetings can also be helpful for those who are more introverted personality types, allowing time to research and reflect on the topic under discussion and plan what you want to say.
  • Speak up early! Taking the initiative early on will allow you to feel more relaxed afterwards, which will in turn make it more likely that you will contribute more over the course of the meeting.  Holding back may increase your anxiety and may also lead to someone else making the same point that you were going to make.
  • Be succinct.  Nervousness can make us ramble which can lead to our message being lost and impact being reduced.  Once you’ve said what you want to say, simply finish speaking. People will appreciate your efficient delivery and use of time.
  • Avoid “qualifiers”.  Women in particular can inadvertently use these - words that can undermine your message and weaken the impact of your statements. Examples include, “is that ok?”, “does that make sense?”, “Sorry that..”, “I hope to..”, “Perhaps we could…” Try to speak with authority and confidence (even if you are paddling furiously under the surface!).
  • Ask questions.  If you are stuck for things to say or feeling too intimidated to offer a point of view, try asking questions about what others are saying.  This can demonstrate that you’re engaged and interested. Preparing some questions in advance of the meeting can help with this.

Company leaders also need to do their part to ensure that a culture of talking over women, or not giving them sufficient opportunity to have their say, doesn’t persist. Online communication can strip away many of the subtle, nonverbal cues that managers and team leaders are trained to pick up on to keep meetings moving forward. Video conferences make it harder to know how long to pause before letting someone else speak or when someone else wants to jump in unless they wave their arms around wildly.  Here are some things that can make a difference if you are a manager arranging a virtual meeting:

  • Limit the group size where possible – not everyone has to be invited to everything. The larger the group the harder it is for some to give their input.  If the meeting has to be large, use smaller breakout sessions to encourage informal dialogue.
  • Think about how the meeting will be structured.  Using online tools such as Slido encourage participation without people needing to speak out loud.  Or just making good use of the chat function can be extremely helpful for some.
  • If possible, send round an agenda before the meeting. This will give people time to prepare and will maximise the time available.
  • Ask everyone in the meeting specific questions so that every single person has an opportunity to speak.
  • Make a point of turning on your camera for every meeting, which will encourage others to do the same
  • Be actively encouraging. Pick up on other people's ideas and develop them – but don't take the credit! Sticky notes and virtual whiteboards can help attendees to brainstorm in person and online.
  • Be a role model - set the tone for non-judgmental, inclusive and respectful behaviour.  In the same way that you would prioritise an inclusive culture in the office, it is important to prioritise it in a remote work environment to get the best out of your people.

Meetings, whether face to face or virtual, are a vital way to increase visibility, boost confidence and ensure career progression.  It has now moved from “desirable” to “necessary” to learn how to navigate your way through the virtual workplace or to give your colleagues the maximum support in doing so.