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When You’re the Only Woman in the Meeting

Being a woman in corporate America is getting easier, but in many places, it’s still a boys club. Simply being a boys club doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a toxic environment for women. In some places, it just means that the ratio of men to women is off-kilter (but that’s a separate issue). For many of us millennials in more progressive work environments, we don’t think about gender imbalances every day. We generally are given respect, especially by other millennial men. That’s why hosting a meeting comprised entirely of men threw me for a loop.

Let’s set the stage.

I was sent a meeting request to attend a multi-team training session. Upon showing up at the large conference room, I realized that I was not only the intended trainer but also that I was the only woman in attendance. Luckily, I have a great deal of experience giving trainings to employees from different departments and levels of the hierarchy. However, the atmosphere was different than how I was accustomed. There was a level of casualness and familiarity that I hadn’t expected.

Around the room, men from different areas of the company checked their emails and joked with one another. There wasn’t the polite professionalism that I’m used to, instead, these men were completely unbridled. Swear words were flowing like water from a tap and jibes were being leveled unscrupulously. During this meeting, it was clear that these men were comfortable “just being themselves.” And it made me feel out of place. But, I also realized that they weren’t altering their behavior just because I was a woman. In a way, that is even more of a display of respect.
So, I started the meeting.

Typically, I would begin by reviewing an agenda and taking suggestions. But this day, I knew I had to rework my whole strategy. Calling on years of reading blogs and listening to stories of how to communicate more effectively with men, I decided to employ a few tactics. And, in the end, I walked away unembarrassed and without anyone thinking anything odd had occurred.

These are the strategies I used to host a more effective training session for a group of men.

Don’t be afraid to be loud –

Women are taught from a young age to be demure and quiet. That can be a hard habit to overcome, especially if you have a naturally quieter voice. I’m lucky in that I generally need to moderate the level of my voice. During this meeting, to remain the focal point, I let my “outdoor voice” out of its box.

What this means is being, literally, louder. When presenting to a group, talk to the other side of the room. And why stop there, talk to the people sitting outside the door! Being louder and speaking with more certainty helps to keep the focus on you, and your ideas being heard. Oftentimes, women tend to be interrupted during meetings. Without going into the weeds of that truth, women can often combat being interrupted by being more forceful.

Use confident body language –

Have you ever thought about the way that you sit? The way you stand? I’d highly recommend watching this Ted Talk about body language because I believe body language is half of the battle to being taken seriously.

Body language can help you communicate and be respected, not only with men but with people in any situation. Taking my lead from the group in this particular meeting, I sat more casually, kept my arms open, leaned back in my seat, and didn’t make prolonged eye contact. (Learn more about the differences in eye contact between men and women in The Politics of Eye Contact: A Gender Perspective by Psychology Today.)

Be more straight-forward –

Another strategy that can be employed when addressing men is to be more literal and straightforward. As a generality, women tend to “check in” on others’ feelings more often than men do. We ask for support, to see if anyone has anything else to add, or to see if everyone agrees with the suggestion. This has its own pros and cons. Men, as a generality, will make their opinion known if they have one, and assume that others will as well. This means that less “beating around the bush” needs to be done when speaking directly to men. This also has its own pros and cons.

At the end of the day…

Most interactions in the workplace shouldn’t have a focus on gender. Gender shouldn’t play a role in being professional, and it shouldn’t cause friction between co-workers. In this meeting, there wasn’t friction, instead, there was a feeling of uncertainty. It’s important to learn about different preferences in communication style so that when we’re confronted with uncomfortable situations, we know how to act.

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