The shift to remote working has had both a positive and negative impact on women. On the one hand, the changes brought on by COVID-19 has paved the way for flexible work in the future, allowing more women to juggle work and other responsibilities like childcare. On the other, research suggests being out of the office may stifle their voices – reducing their visibility among their peers and managers.
A survey of 1,100 working adults in the US by Catalyst, a nonprofit organisation that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that 45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings. One in five women said they felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.
Worryingly, three out of five female employees say they feel like their prospects of getting a promotion are worse in their new remote work environment.
A year has passed since the start of the pandemic and many of us are well aware of the pitfalls of video meetings. Not only is it hard to tell who is about to speak, making interruptions more likely, it can be difficult to get your point across when a large number of people are speaking at the same time. Even before the pandemic, however, multiple studies suggested women are more likely to be talked over or ignored in meetings.
"I think that in many spaces women's voices are not heard and I have witnessed them being silenced on calls, video calls and in meetings,” says psychology and neuroscience expert Ruth Kudzi, a mindset coach and coach trainer.
“If we are going to value contributions, we need to value everyone’s contribution by giving people the space to talk and the platform so they realise that their voice is important.”
There are many reasons why women are commonly interrupted or talked over at work, including gender stereotyping and discrimination. Essentially, the silencing of women in professional environments is an outdated manifestation of times when boardrooms were dominated by men, says voice artist and coach Nicola Redman.
“Times are changing and each voice deserves an audience,” she says. “This treatment of the female voice has had an effect on how the female spoken voice has developed. Women often speak with a little upglide or a questioning tone as they’re used to their opinion being viewed as secondary.
“It’s a vocal trait that is common in female speakers which, ironically, is now mentioned to many females in business as a negative trait as they sound unsure, lacking in confidence and weak,” Redman says. “Yet, it was borne out of females being made to feel like their voice wasn’t valid in the space and the vocal insecurity that comes with this.”
Addressing the problem isn’t simply the responsibility of female employees. Rather, all leaders need to be aware of this being a problem so that they are conscious of it when leading meetings, calls or video calls.
“They need to allow space for people to talk and manage the space and flow effectively to ensure it is all inclusive,” Kudzi says. “Video calls are sometimes more difficult to manage due to technical lags, delays and not always picking up on other people's feelings and emotions.
“As a leader, I would recommend that you try to ensure you can see others on screen during the meeting and try to watch their reactions and see if they are trying to speak up.”
Depending on the number of people in the meeting, it can help to introduce some video call etiquette, Kudzi adds. “You could mute all participants initially and then bring them into the conversation - the hands up button is good for those who have something to say or invite people into the conversation, but be mindful of being inclusive.”
A clear agenda provides structure to keep the conversation on track and ensure everyone on the call has a chance to speak up too.
If you’re struggling to make yourself heard, Redman suggests focusing straight down the camera lens. “Keep your gaze fixed and everyone will know you’re talking to them. When you try and ‘see’ everyone on the call by moving around the screen it can undermine your place as the speaker,” she says.
If you get anxious about video calls, warming up beforehand can be helpful too. “A few shoulder rolls, some neck stretches, lips trills and tongue or jaw release exercises can release any nervous tension creeping in before you speak and help you sound more like ‘you’ and less controlled by the situation,” says Redman. “Overall, remember that you just need to persevere. The problem doesn’t lie with you, it lies with the listener.”
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