Recent research shows that workplace meetings held remotely often blunt women’s voices. Communication expert Carol Vernon says that ground rules and good planning can ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.
In the roughly eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to socially distance, the dynamic of office meetings has changed significantly—and that shift threatens to leave women out of the conversation.
A recent study by the research firm Catalyst found that women often lose out in remote conversations, with 45 percent of female business leaders saying that it’s difficult for women to speak up during virtual meetings. Nearly the same number of men (42 percent) agreed.
Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach and founder and principal of Communication Matters, says that creating more equitable meeting environments may require some tactical changes for meeting organizers and attendees.
Women “have to be comfortable in this space, speaking up, voicing our opinion—not just comfortable with the technology; that was Zoom 101,” she says. “We’re in a whole different video world now.”
Vernon offered tips that can help meeting planners and female attendees set the stage for a better conversation that makes room for everyone.
Create Ground Rules
Too often, Vernon says, hard-charging coworkers interrupt or leave little room for other speakers to get a word in edgewise. Ground rules can play an important role here.
“It will be hard to hold people accountable if we did not set something that we are accountable to,” she says.
In larger meetings, this can be handled using technology tools—say, by putting someone in charge of muting and unmuting speakers or by using the chat function as a way to raise hands.
These rules for meetings can be set across an organization. Vernon cites the American Forest and Paper Association, which created standards for video-based member interactions, including when employees can leave their cameras and microphones off during a discussion.
The differences between video and in-person interactions can leave some communication styles at a disadvantage. While some body language may be visible on a video call, for example, it’s limited.
For participants who may have a harder time being heard, it helps to plan ahead and consider what you can add to the conversation and when you intend to speak up.
“Do more than read the agenda five minutes ahead of time,” she says. “Look at it, think about, ‘I need to be on that agenda. I’ve got something I want to share.’” She adds that it’s important to consider the setting, the technology, and who else might be on the call.
“Show up early. Make sure there’s no tech issues,” she suggests.
Speak Up Early and Often
Some women hold off on talking until they’re sure they have something smart to say—but waiting to jump in might create missed opportunities. Vernon suggests speaking up within the first five minutes and engaging through body motions such as head nods and leaning forward during the conversation.
“Get into the moment, build on other people’s points, ask questions, shake your head, really let somebody know ‘I hear you,’” she says.
If you find yourself being interrupted or talked over, calmly but firmly remind others of the ground rules. Vernon suggests language like, “Hey, I’d like to make sure I’m speaking next, and I’ve got a few ideas for how to do this.”
Many of these issues are rooted in bias, and sometimes the best way to handle bias is to subvert it. Vernon points to a tactic used by female White House staffers during the Obama administration. As noted by The Washington Post, women in meetings would often repeat key points raised by other female staffers while crediting the originator of the idea, reinforcing the value women brought and eventually leading to stronger gender equity in the White House.
“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” a White House official told the Post in 2016. Meeting moderators can borrow the technique by summarizing what female participants have said and crediting them.
“It’s an easier way, it’s a more comfortable way for some of us as women,” Vernon says. “We tend to be more collaborative.”