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How to deal with being the only woman in a meeting

The ‘confidence gap’ is something that has been talked about a lot in the media in recent years. Women tend not to be as confident in their own ability as their male counterparts and more likely to suffer from 'imposter syndrome', promoting themselves less.

Photo by Seventy Four

According to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, women consistently rated their performance on a test lower than did men, even though both groups had the same average score. Where men on average gave themselves a 61 out of 100, women gave themselves a 46 out of 100.

Whether you believe the confidence gap is a myth or not, it is hard to escape the fact that women are consistently underrepresented in senior roles. Only a third of boardroom positions are filled by women, while the percentage of women in business leadership positions is much lower.

Whether or not you struggle with confidence issues, if you work in a male-dominated industry and find that you’re often the only woman in a meeting it can be hard to make yourself heard. That’s why we’ve put together this list of strategies that should help you ensure that everyone gets their voice heard - and their opinion respected - regardless of their gender.

Be aware of your body language

In order to take control of how you’re perceived, it’s important to become conscious of your body language. After all, over half of all communication is non-verbal. To convey the fact that you’re in control of a situation before you even open your mouth, sit up straight with your shoulders back and down and put both feet on the floor. Keep your chin and head up, and don’t be afraid to hold eye contact as you share your opinion with a colleague.

When standing to address the room, plant your feet below your hips about a foot apart. This helps to present you as strong, confident and in charge - which should, in turn, help to discourage others from interrupting or speaking over you.

For more fascinating details about how your body language may actually shape who you are, listen to social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject:

Have confidence in your ability to add value

Studies have shown that women are often less likely to contribute in a meeting, whether it is because they are outnumbered, have a higher fear of being wrong or are just sick of being

manterrupted! The key here is to have faith in your opinions - if you appear confident in your ability to add value to the meeting, others are more likely to listen to you. But don’t feel you have to push your opinion forward straight away. Numerous leaders including renowned author and speaker Simon Sinek have talked about how powerful it is to be the last to speak - it gives you a chance to listen to everyone’s opinions and put forward a concluding thought that will leave a lasting impression.

Be assertive

Women are more likely than men to soften what they have to say, beginning their sentences with comments such as, ‘I might be wrong, but…’ or, ‘It’s really awkward to ask you this, I know, but…’. When we appear apologetic, others assume that we’re not convinced by our own opinion - so why should they be?

At my company, we often hear candidates apologising about even wanting flexible working in the first place. But we know that if they don’t go into their flexibility request meeting with an assertive attitude they are far less likely to get the outcome they want.

To avoid this problem, simply state what you’d like to share without apologies or qualifiers. Remember, you won’t be seen as rude for doing this - instead, you’ll sound confident, clear and authoritative. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, try the “fake it ‘til you make it” technique - it’ll get easier to do once you see the positive effects it has on your interactions.

Shut down banter calmly and confidently

Unfortunately, as a woman, you may find that some less progressive colleagues sometimes make jokes at your expense - or use language in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. When this happens, it’s important to keep your cool while letting everyone know that such comments are unacceptable.

If someone makes an inappropriate comment towards or about you - perhaps under the guise of ‘banter’ - the key is to keep your body language strong, and to hold eye contact with the person in question.

A good option is to wait for them to stop talking, and for the room to become quiet, then to pretend you didn’t clearly hear or understand what the person just said. With a calm, warm tone and confident body language, ask them to repeat or explain their comment, as you don’t think you understood the first time. The wind should quickly fall out of their sails, and you can get the meeting back on track. Remember, as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said: ‘Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent’.

Of course, there is one other way to fix the problem of low confidence due to being the only woman in a meeting - make sure there are more women in the next one. If you notice that you’re regularly the only person representing the female workforce, could you be brave enough to speak up and challenge the status quo?

By guest contributor Shelley Snelson

Photo by Shelley Snelson

About the author

Shelley is the Founder and Director of Flexology, a recruitment business dedicated to improving flexible working opportunities for professionals in the South West. An accomplished people manager, Shelley is also a qualified Chartered Accountant (FCA) with over 16 years experience in financial and professional services, establishing, managing and developing large financial and operational teams and shaping business decisions.

Find out more about Shelley:


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