Updated: Apr 14
As a woman, how often do you speak up in meetings? Do you feel comfortable going to your boss and expressing your ideas and concerns? When talking to a coworker, do you worry about sounding bossy or overbearing if you offer help?
For many women, thoughts of speaking up are squashed at an early age. Boys are encouraged to be confident, even to a point of aggression, while girls are praised for modesty and keeping the peace.
Women are even sometimes punished in tangible or intangible ways for speaking out. They may get negative performance reviews based on being too talkative, too aggressive, etc. when men are praised for the same behavior.
Early in my leadership journey, I had the personal experience of being told by my female supervisor that I spoke too much and asked too many questions in meetings.
Female leaders who aren’t afraid to boldly speak out are sometimes seen as bossy, too pushy, or overly emotional if they express concern about something. It’s disheartening to hear stories of women being criticized for the same behavior that is applauded in men.
But discounting women’s voices leaves out half of the population and allows great ideas to go unheard. The best businesses and teams have a diverse makeup so that problems can be tackled from multiple angles and new ideas can flow freely.
How can women learn to speak up more and what can organizations do to help encourage the voices of all team members?
Increase Your Confidence
One of the biggest reasons women say they don’t speak up is because they don’t feel confident enough. They fear being wrong or sounding silly. They feel anxious about speaking in front of a group or to a superior.
You can start with small steps to build up your confidence. Think of times when you’ve been successful and write them down. Trying reciting daily affirmations or practice power poses before a meeting to get you pumped up. Read stories of confident women or watch inspiring shows/movies to see how other women have done it.
Ease into speaking up. Making a drastic change can be overwhelming, so go one step at a time. An easy way to do this is to find one item to comment on during each meeting. If you get an agenda in advance, you can look it over and find the item you’re most interested in or most knowledgeable about.
Think of a question to get more details or clarify a complex point. Asking questions demonstrates that you’re interested in understanding properly instead of moving ahead without all the information. You can also actively participate in meetings non-verbally by nodding or using other gestures to show you’re focused, listening, and engaged.
Another way to boost your confidence is to “fake it until you make it.” You’d probably be surprised how many people around you don’t really feel as confident as they seem. Confidence is most often preceded by some level of courage – doing it afraid!
When you find yourself wavering about speaking up, think of a confident role model - What would Beyonce do? What would RBG do? Michelle Obama? These women didn’t rise by sitting quietly, so channel your inner Beyonce and speak up!
Getting Comfortable with Speaking Up
To help yourself get more comfortable about the idea of speaking up, practice in settings where you feel safer.
Try making comments or asking questions during a church group meeting or at a charitable organization that you support where there’s less risk if you make a mistake. Whatever the group is, find people who you’re comfortable speaking in front of to get some practice.
If you have a presentation or know there is a topic you want to speak about at an upcoming meeting, test drive what you’re going to say in front of a friend or coworker who you trust. It’ll increase your confidence if you’ve done it before and they can help point out any potential problems before you’re in front of an actual audience.
Do your best to prepare ahead of time for meetings to help feel more comfortable with the topics of discussion. Research the projects in question and keep up to date on industry news and trends. It’s a lot easier to speak up when you know what you’re talking about!
To help you learn to speak up, seek out a mentor or role model within your organization. A mentor can work with you to help you gain confidence and learn ways to make your skills and ideas known. A role model could be someone in the organization you look up to. Follow their example and learn what they do.
Getting comfortable with speaking up may include finding a community that provides a safe place and a forum to practice such as a local Toastmasters Club.
Speaking Up When It Counts
If you find yourself in situations where a positive outcome relies on your ability to speak up effectively, consider leveraging resources like this month’s Book Club choice, Crucial Conversations. Finding a safe environment to hone your skills at speaking confidently is valuable when stakes are high.
In Social+Emotional Intelligence, we look at the competency of Personal Power: A strong sense of one's self-worth and capabilities; self-confidence. A key component of Personal Power is being able to speak truth to power. Knowing the truth and being able to speak it at a crucial moment requires intentional preparation and a high level of confidence.
When you’re making an important point, refrain from using any words that minimize or qualify your statements, such as “actually” or “just” and unnecessarily apologizing or indicating apology for having a contribution to the dialogue. Minimizing or qualifying language can detract from what you’re saying and make you seem less confident.
How you effectively use your tone when you’re speaking up can help others feel that your true intent is to help your project or organization make the best decision versus highlighting a mistake made by a colleague or oversight of upper management.
Being able to point out potential unintended consequences or encouraging the consideration of an option can potentially save your company money or prevent reputational risk. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it that can help prevent others from taking your suggestions personally so you’re your contribution is viewed as valuable.
Encourage Others to Speak Up
If you’re already confident speaking up or are a leader in your organization, it’s up to you to help others. Decide NOT to be the female leader that tells your female colleagues or direct reports to be quiet.
Be an ally. Look for women to mentor, help them prep for important meetings and be the role model for all women in your organization. If you’re in a position to influence how women are afforded opportunities to contribute – what can you do to support the women in your organization in speaking up?
Research indicates that many women struggle with speaking up because they lack female role models. The number of role models will only change with the increase of women in key senior leadership roles. As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day tomorrow, I hope that you’re striving to be a role model and doing all you can to help other women rise!
When it comes to speaking up - Don’t give up! Even when you try and your ideas don’t work or no one listens, keep trying!
If you want help in building your confidence, as a woman you can consider finding it in my Toastmasters Club – Kentuckiana Women in Leadership. We’re currently meeting virtually so you can join us even if you’re not in the local Evansville, Indiana area.
Be sure to also join me for Book Club this month as we discuss Crucial Conversations.
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