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Women: How to be Heard in the Corporate World

Women: How to be Heard in the Corporate World

Helen Ayres, Threshold Consulting - 08 Mar 2011

Women working in large corporate enterprises, and particularly in the financial sector, may want to shake off the notion of the glass ceiling and find a way of communicating that is better suited to self-promotion and getting their voices heard.

With the unveiling of Lord Davies’ study on boardroom gender equality leading the UK government to push the FTSE top 350 companies in the UK to almost double the number of women in boardroom positions by 2013, it seems that the issue of women in the workplace is firmly back on the agenda. But why are there so few women in senior positions - only 7.3% of directors within FTSE 250 companies are women - and what can women do to help improve their own leadership development?

When it comes to improving staff morale or empowering employees, our advice is invariably to communicate in a more honest and open way. But the style of this communication will differ - perhaps only slightly - depending on whether it is being delivered by a man or by a woman. This is also true at senior executive level. Communication patterns between men and women will typically differ because they reflect the way in which we have evolved and the challenges we have faced. This is important because if women are able to understand this subtle difference in ‘codes’, and can move flexibly between them, they have the tools to become more powerful and effective.

Women ask us for help to improve their leadership qualities and potential on the premise that they ‘lack confidence’, but we tend to find that this is an outward perception created by their habitual mode of communication. Yes, there are too few women board directors, but women are significantly more likely to leave corporations, start their own businesses and manage them successfully, which indicates that there is no lack of motivation, ambition or confidence. For women working in large corporate enterprises, and particularly in the financial world, they may want to shake off the notion of the glass ceiling - or even the ‘sticky floor’ - and find a way of communicating that is better suited to self-promotion and getting their voices heard. It could give them a crucial competitive advantage at the highest levels.

These communication patterns of men and women are broad, not universal or unshakeable, and individually we all have our own variety of communication styles with which we are comfortable. For men, challenging, competitiveness, clear hierarchy and taking charge tend to be valued. For women, survival needs would have historically put a greater emphasis on making connections, forming alliances and being part of a mutually supportive network.

As we say to the many women from the financial sector who attend our workshops, these are explanations, not limitations, and women can choose to use and be comfortable in whichever communication mode they want to use. The key is to adopt more ‘male energy’ when the situation calls for it and communicate with ‘female energy’ but with greater power, presence and authority.

The Approach

Here are some typical examples of the differences in approach. Evidence suggests that women are more likely to avoid conflict, and while this can be effective in many situations, it can also leave women frustrated if they then feel that they haven’t got their point across. In addition, women tend to speak more in private, but less than men in meetings and men’s contribution, perhaps as a result, is recalled more clearly.

We see that in conversations between men and women in the workplace, women often take the time to pay a compliment at the start, hoping for a return compliment, but this can be missed or misunderstood by men. When receiving praise, a woman executive may be more likely to miss the opportunity to use this as a means of promoting herself and instead cast light on the efforts of her entire team. And in meetings men can be seen as occupying a stronger position because they are willing to adopt a more direct and authoritative style. Some men also read the female preference for a consultative approach with her team as her requiring ‘permission’ - something that they may associate with lack of courage and conviction.

In Meetings

We advise women on our courses to relax in meetings and stay in the present. In other words contribute as much or as little as you want, but stay focused entirely on the meeting and not on the impression that you think you are making. Practice speaking with greater intention - not greater volume - and complete what you want to say, don’t trail off at the end because somebody else has interrupted. If you don’t complete your sentence, the impact of it will be dissipated.

There are conversational hooks that you can use to increase your influence and control of a discussion without obviously directing it towards yourself. Use an anchor, for example, “I would like to bring us on to this point….” Or a channel, “I would like to hear more from Jane about project xxx.”

There are also advantages in using the word ‘sorry’ to smooth a conversation, but never as an adjunct to an important point. And softeners, such as “would you mind….emailing that document to me after the meeting’”, are a natural way of making a request more polite. However avoid statements such as “I’d just like to say….”, in which the word ‘just’ will clearly dent any command you might have held. Try out a tee-up to draw attention to the important point you are about to make: “of course, the crucial point is this…”.

Give Your Question Some Impact

Men are more inclined to mask the fact that they don’t know something; it might make them appear vulnerable. But asking a question is a form of flattery, if it is phrased in the right way, and shows that you value a person’s opinion and knowledge. To avoid appearing as though you might be less ‘knowing’, make sure your question does not start with an apology, and instead ask: “Tell me more about….” or “Could you expand on that” or “So, to be clear, you are saying….”, all of which are strong and direct.

A direct style is more masculine, but there are advantages to an indirect style, which is usually favoured by women. The most successful way of combining the two is to use an indirect style, e.g. “I wonder if it would be a good idea to summarise those final figures so they’re clearer for the shareholders”, but with plenty of female energy, drawing on your presence and authority. The key is to learn to be comfortable at being direct when you need to be and soften a direct request or statement with a degree of politeness. By becoming more aware of the style that you use, you will start to appreciate how it can enhance your ‘up-down management’ and the appropriate style for moving or managing upwards.

Women who have been on our courses report that one of the most effective techniques is the ‘did you get that’ - this is a private phrase that you say to yourself (not out loud) at the end of a sentence, which will keep the energy going through to the last word.

Flex the Rules

We all live by rules, beliefs and assumptions and these help us to function as human beings, but the communication tools we have looked at above don’t stand a chance if we succumb to an overriding need to comply with our rules. This is hard because the way in which we automatically think about, or respond to, a situation determines what we feel and do. Women can target what they are thinking, aim to change it, and this will alter the way they respond in a situation and the outcome that they achieve. It’s about challenging yourself to find another course. You can break the cycle of a rigid rule by using the ‘if…then…’ analysis and testing whether the result would actually be too bad.

For example: “If I take too much credit, then…..”, or “If I interrupt in a meeting, then…..”, or “If I give critical feedback, then…”. If you complete any of these sentences, or others that may be particularly appropriate to your situation or your own inhibitions, you will start to see how you can challenge your own assumptions.

Earlier in this article we talked about some typical female approaches in meetings and the overwhelming impression is that women tend to want to be nice. While there are many benefits to being nice, and we certainly wouldn’t advocate the other extreme, you might want to stop for a moment and adopt a more flexible behavioural rule, something like: “I prefer to be…., but it’s ok if I am…”.

Confidence

Finally we come back to confidence, often seen as something others have but it is yours to own. Think of it as a muscle, something that can be ‘flexed’ and strengthened. Create a bank of positive memories and successes, and picture yourself at that moment - draw on the energy that you had and use it at times when your confidence is being tested.

Conclusion

Lord Davies’ report not only recommends that a larger percentage of women should be on the boards of the FTSE 350 companies within the next few years, it also suggests that quoted companies should be required to disclose the proportion of women on the board, in senior positions and employed in the organisation. This report has also generated much debate about the role of the recruitment process within companies and the importance of addressing gender diversity. But, crucially, it is women themselves that can have the biggest impact on their own corporate future, and the first step is to make themselves heard and understood.

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