Feminism, over the years, has done some amazing things for women. It’s empowered us, made us equal, given us rights, money and the confidence to succeed. Women are now conquering some of the major sectors of retail, finance, healthcare and entertainment and that’s amazing. The headlines and papers are full of stories about iconic women who take on their fears and beat them down into submission, and our daughters are now being brought up hearing stories of heroic princesses, rather than knights in shining armour.
So then, why is it, on our first day at a new company when we step into the boardroom, that our voices are suddenly silenced by the loud, booming voices of the male colleagues sitting next to us. The office boardroom is a frightening place, no matter what industry you work in, and the realities of being overshadowed in the important meetings that take place there are all too common in the modern office.
But what can we do to make ourselves heard in the boys club of the boardroom? Without sounding like either a whining child or a bossy bitch, how do we get our ideas and opinions across? How do we avoid the declarations of ‘ooh, someone’s a feminist’ and ‘looks like it’s that time of the month again!’. Simple.
Address the concerns of the office around you
Change can be scary, and whilst it might be frustrating to admit that the male population of your office is unhappy with a female superior, it’s easier to address the problem head on. Respond to the questions of ‘are you on period’ with ‘yes, I am, now can we carry on with the meeting’, or ‘no, not this week, now let’s discuss your performance this month’. Be as professional as possible with even your most jovial of colleagues in the boardroom, if they refuse to take you seriously, and don’t let any joke, comment or loudly spoken jibe shut you down.
Ice, ice, baby
As one wise female manager once told me ‘you can always start cold, and warm up to your office, but if you start warm, there’s no going back’. Be the cold-hearted bitch they all expect you to be at first, and then soften as progress begins to happen.
Speak up immediately and drive the conversation before anyone else gets a chance to change the subject and make yourself known as the ‘speaker’. Then, as the meeting goes on, and more and more ideas are being shared, reward each bright spark with a smile, a ‘good idea!’ and build up your colleagues from zero to hero.
Use your body language
There are two ways to approach body language in the boardroom. You can lie back in your chair, arms folded and eyes trained on every single person in that room – waiting for the right lull before entering the conversation and dominating it from there on it. Or, you can begin with the ‘in’.
Transmit as much of your body onto the desk as possible, without looking strange, with hands on the table, elbows, arms, and lean into the conversation directly to physically insert yourself into office dialogue. Seem interested, rather than keen. Where possible, sit at the head of table, as it makes you harder to ignore, and keep your back straight for the utmost interest. If this suddenly draws all eyes to your chest, then utilise the attention and draw the focus up your mouth, which will be speaking the right kind of language.
Don’t get interrupted
Depending on your role in the boardroom, being interrupted when speaking might be par for the course. As an intern, whilst your voice should be heard, if a senior colleague needs to intervene, it’s only polite to let them. But if you yourself are the senior colleague, there is never any need for someone else to stop you talking.
If they do, maintain your composure in front of your team or client, but draw that person aside at the end and request that, in future, they wait until you have said your piece. Other people have good ideas yes, but shutting down your idea to explain there’s is a practice that no professional should undertake.
If you’re halfway through the year, and you feel like it’s been months since you even opened your mouth in a meeting, it’s time to assign yourself a new role. Become the ‘note taker’. Be the person who catches everything and remembers everything. Note the client’s body language when your boss starts talking about rising fees and invoices. Remember the date the contractor promised to have finished the work by. Make a note of the exact phrasing used by the senior partner about the state of affairs for the future, and re-visit it again in a later meeting.
As the client begins to look uncomfortable in their follow up meeting, broach the topic with a ‘I couldn’t help but notice that you looked a little distressed when we discussed fees in our last meeting, is this something we could talk about now?’. Open up the dialogue with a ‘sorry to interrupt, but I believe we had originally scheduled the work to be completed last week, is there a reason it’s taking longer that we could help with?’ Make yourself vital to the team and the structure of the office, and you’ll never be ignored again.
It’s tough to speak up in a room full of noise. But remember that every great woman started out by finding her voice in a tough situation, and you can do just the same.