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Sometimes the online meetings we have now seem vastly different from the gatherings we used to have in a conference room or a restaurant’s meeting room.
Everyone’s in their own home, we get glimpses of their real life, and nobody’s at the head of the table—the pecking order’s been upended.
And then in other ways, these virtual meetings are just the same. Turns out it’s still harder for women to make themselves heard.
Take all the imbalance we’re familiar with from years of research, not to mention our personal experience. It is magnified online, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, famous for her work on men, women and communication in Talking from 9 to 5.
She was writing, in the 1990s, about how we hear each other, or don’t, in offices, conference rooms and cafeterias. Turns out the same patterns still show up now, in 2020, on Zoom, Skype and WebEx.
For example, Tannen told the New York Times in virtual meetings as at the old-fashioned conference table, women are more likely to keep it short. And although I’m the first to recommend being pithy, Tannen says this tendency has its roots in women not wanting to take up too much space.
Also, in our quest for likability, we’re prone to be more self-deprecating and less direct.
And while there are certainly men who like to be liked, in general they’re less burdened by that pursuit.
Tannen points out that men tend to speak longer than their female colleagues. They’re more argumentative and critical. And when they are, rather than being seen as disagreeable or difficult, they’re perceived as authoritative.
Maybe you’ve seen this sort of thing play out in your Zoom meetings?
The Times quoted the head of Diversity & Inclusion at Unilever about trying to share an opinion in a virtual meeting: “I’m interrupted, like, three times and then I try to speak again and then two other people are speaking at the same time interrupting each other.”
Mita Mallick isn’t the only one feeling frustrated, is she?
I’m pretty sure there are men, too. who feel overlooked and under-heard every time they “enter meeting.” They’re the ones who hold back when a speaker asks for questions or comments.
Tannen thought her more reticent students would participate in a bigger way when she took her Georgetown University classes online in response to the coronacrisis.
It turned out to be the other way around. “You’re looking at a screen with everybody’s face staring back at you,” she says. “It can be even more intimidating.”
Still, it’s just more common for women to be the ones who are ignored.
How to address that? I offered some suggestions for the IRL world when I wrote about women in robes (yes, Supreme Court justices) being interrupted.
Those suggestions still apply, even when we’re meeting virtually. Maybe especially when we’re meeting virtually. And I’ll start with some new ones for Zooming.
- Dress for business, at least from the waist up. How you look creates an impression that can support or undermine your message.
- Sit with your feet on the floor, centered and grounded. Or even stand when you’re speaking. And breathe from your belly to give your voice more oomph. You need a strong voice to command the Zoom room.
- You’re better off sitting at a desk or table than sprawled on a couch with a device in your lap. Aside from the way you look, your voice will be much stronger that way.
- Use an external microphone rather than the one built into your device. Make sure it’s close enough to your mouth for you to be fully heard. Check the sound before you join a meeting to make sure it’s working well.
- Resist the temptation to turn off your camera. We can hardly complain about being invisible if we show up in a meeting as a black box with our name on it.
- Make sure your image is centered on the screen, with a little headroom, but not too much. Sit far enough from the camera that we can see your shoulders and chest.
- Use gestures as you would in a face-to-face conversation. They’ll animate your voice, so you capture and keep attention.
- Use vigorous language and don’t diminish your message with qualifiers and softeners. (“I think,” “maybe,” “could we” and so on.)
- Support other women. Repeat what they said if it seems to have gone unnoticed or invite them to say it again.
Nobody knows how long it’ll be before we’re back at conference tables again. Best guess? Even when people return to offices and meeting rooms, we’ll still be doing some of our work virtually. Maybe even most of it.
If you’re concerned about the impact that will have on your business, your career, or your team, consider some coaching.
You know I have years of experience commanding attention and making my message magnetic with only my voice and words. I’ve shared those skills with hundreds of professionals in keynotes, workshops and individual coaching.
And that was before the whole world went virtual.
Now that we’re doing it all online, there’s an even greater need for my Uninterruptible: Make Every Conversation Count. You can reply to this email to explore the possibilities for you.
And we’d love to hear about your experience with the online meetings.
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