Monday, 26 January 2015

Why women don't dare to speak in meetings - and what we can do about it

Women speak very little at meetings because they are expected to speak less than men, and because they are very good at convincing themselves that what they have to say isn't interesting enough. Today is my first installment of a two-part article on why women don't speak, and what we can do to work against this trend.

Have you ever noticed how, in meetings, women tend to speak very little? While some men will ramble on and on, women will censor themselves and speak very briefly (linguists call this "bursts") or not at all. I didn't really take this in consciously until I took a course in sociolinguistics back in my 1st year at uni, where I was confronted with Elizabeth Aries' research into conversational patterns in male, female and mixed groups. Aries, and a host of researchers after her, showed that women speak a lot less in mixed-sex environments than men. And what's worse, if a woman did speak as much as the most voluble man in the group, everyone thought she was speaking too much. People were even convinced that she spoke longer than any of the men. This shows that we perceive women's and men's speech very differently, and subconsciously all of us expect women to speak less than men.

So women speak less than men because otherwise, people will think she's speaking too much. Apart from this bias against women, I believe that the main reason women speak less is because women tend to stop themselves from speaking because they're very good at convincing themselves that what they have to say isn't very interesting, or similar to what has already been said.

Men are generally more comfortable speaking in public as they don't tend to self-censor the way women do. Some say that this has something to do with the way men are raised. Nancy Friday argues that boys grow up with the basic conviction that anything they might say is interesting. Whereas women are taught the opposite.

This might explain why, over the years, studies have consistently shown that when they do speak, women tend to lessen the impact of what they're saying by adding what linguists call "hedges". These are expressions like "I'm not an expert, but...", "I heard that is the case", or "I'm not sure if this is right, but...".

Anyway, what do we do about it? I've written up two sets of strategies that have helped me work against this imbalance over the years: as a shy speaker, as well as a meeting chair. Today, I'm going to deal with the first part. This is about what you can do if you're in a meeting and afraid to speak up. Next week, I'm going to talk about what the person running the meeting can do to make sure everyone gets a fair share of speaking time.

How to un-zip your mouth, un-tie your tongue or whatever

1. Force yourself to speak
I used to be very shy at meetings, and still am, more so than I care to admit. I guess when you're new to your job, you're surrounded by people who've got more experience than you and that can be intimidating. But gradually I started to think: why on earth shouldn't I participate in discussions if I've got an opinion? Especially seen as many people who habitually speak at meetings don't really have anything (interesting) to say at all. I still don't tend to speak that much at meetings. The truth is that, a lot of the time, I really need to push myself to not be intimidated by the seemingly confident speakers around me. So I need to be brave in order to actually speak during meetings. But when I do it, it's worth it, and in my experience, the more you force yourself to speak, the easier it gets, until it becomes second nature.

2. Become confident with a few simple rhetorical techniques
At the beginning of our relationship, my partner taught me a really good technique for making sure people listen to you for longer: announce the number of points you're about to make. Say something like "I think there are two issues here" (or three, or four). This way, people know that they need to listen until you've made two (or three, or four) points.
Another technique used by public speakers is to speak loudly, clearly, and most of all: slowly. Have you ever noticed how the people that speak the most, and who seem most confident, tend to speak slowly? Politicians' speeches are one of the most extreme examples. I used to speak very quickly at meetings because I was so nervous. Over time, I got really angry as I realised that some people would monopolise speaking time and on top of that, speak really slowly, especially older and more experienced members of staff. I remember thinking to myself: what the hell! When I speak, I say, like, five words, and I blurt them out. These people talk for several minutes and they take their time with every word they say. Everyone should have an equal say, and if they expect me to listen to them for 10 minutes, they sure as hell should be prepared to listen to everyone else for the same amount of time. 

3. Don't let bullies intimidate you
Finally, some people at meetings will deliberately try and intimidate others into speaking very little. I once went to a conference dinner and was sat next to a star academic who spent the evening bragging about how many books he'd published. After what felt like an eternity of him talking about the 50 books he'd written, and me being polite and pretending I was impressed, he asked me:

"So if you had to condense your research contribution to this world into one sentence, what would it be?"

I sat there with my mouth gaping. And then I said: "Frankly, I don't see the point of doing that". The technique I used there was to deflect what he was saying to open up space for me to speak for as long as I liked, instead of letting him set the terms of how long I was allowed to speak (in this case, one sentence!!).
Anyway, I'm a big believer in allocating speaking time fairly, as you're going to see next week when I talk about ways of making meetings more inclusive. In the meantime, have a lovely week!


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