Updated Mar 08, 2017 01:20pm

7 ways for women to make their voices heard in the workplace

Maheen Rahman and Jehan Ara contribute tips for asserting yourself in the Pakistani workplace
Maheen Rahman and Jehan Ara contribute tips for asserting yourself in the Pakistani workplace

One of the #1 rules for career advancement is a no-brainer: be seen and be heard.

But more often than not, women find themselves invisible in the workplace, their ideas, opinions and perspectives ignored — or worse, stolen — right from their mouths in the meeting room.

If you're a working woman, 2017 is the year you make this stop for yourself.

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is #BeBoldForChange, a motto that asks for a more inclusive, gender-equal working world.

Here's how you can help make this happen, starting with amplifying your own voice and presence at your workplace:

1) First things first — value yourself.

'Confidence is key in communication' — that phrase is cliché because it's true.

"I think it's important for women to first realise their own worth," says Jehan Ara, President of P@SHA and The Nest I/O. "I am not suggesting that they be arrogant but I am suggesting that they do not underestimate who they are and how invaluable they are to the company that they work for."

However, it may be difficult to feel 100% sure of oneself when one is bombarded with signs of being undervalued. To counter those cues and build your confidence, it's important to invest in your abilities — that investment also comes with some heavy-duty advantages.

"[Women] should build up their own capacities so that companies will be nervous at losing them to the competition," advises Jehan.

In other words, 'be so good, they can't ignore you' — another cliché that ought to be inscribed on one of your office walls.

2) Then the obvious — don't keep mum during meetings.

Okay, so you're feeling sure of yourself and your ideas. The next step is introducing your thoughts in the meeting room.

"There is no sense in quietly sitting through meetings and not interacting with colleagues or senior management. Organisations value new ideas, thoughts and most of all delivery in terms of work given. All too often I have seen women not contributing in meetings and hence being sidelined," notes Maheen Rahman, ‎Chief Executive at AlfalahGHP Asset Management.

Some pro tips for standing out at meetings: "It's important to listen to the other side with an open mind and offer solutions rather than only problems," suggests Maheen.

Feeling hesitant to speak up? Psychologist Dr. Marcia Reynolds suggests you assess the risks of doing so. "Ask yourself, what is the worst that could happen and what is the best that could happen? If the best that could happen is worth the risk, then why not speak up?" Even if you aren't at your most articulate, you've added more value to a conversation with your input than staying silent could have — and that's why you're at the meeting.

3) While you're talking... don't get 'manterrupted'.

Men interrupting women during workplace conversations (and beyond) is so common a phenomenon that there's now a word for it — manterrupting.

"Women should build up their capacities so that companies are nervous about losing them to the competition." - Jehan Ara

The first thing to do is to acknowledge that this isn't okay. Men aren't entitled to dominate the conversation, even though they tend to behave like it. The behaviour is so pervasive that no one questions it, which is why it's important to counter it by simply calling it out.

Another way to address manterrupting is this subtle trick that ensures that women's voices don't get drowned out in meetings — and it comes straight from the White House.

A Washington Post article describes how female staffers at the White House adopted a meeting strategy called amplification. "When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognise the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own."

The best part? Obama noticed and began seeking the opinions of women more often.

Supporting other women when they want to make their voices heard is important because it helps create a culture where women's opinions are valued.

4) Start sharing your ideas before the meeting.

Still feel your ideas are getting stolen? There's another hack you can use.

Speaking to Wall Street Journal, Susan Hertzberg, ex-CEO of an American health care company, revealed that she shared her ideas to key people before meetings.

"I made sure that on things that I had a particular point of view on—especially if it wasn’t going to be status quo—that with key people that were going to be in meetings, I went and talked about my ideas with them. They knew they were my ideas. They knew where I stood."

In the end, you’re getting acknowledged for having brought that thinking to the table, even if the way you brought it to the table was outside the meeting room.

5) Stop saying sorry... where it's not needed

A side effect of feeling like an impostor in the meeting room is the misguided feeling that you're imposing too much for having an opinion, asking for a clarification, etc. But career coach Tamisha Ford has it right when she says that the only times apologies at work are needed is when you hurt someone or go back on your word.

"It's important to listen to the other side with an open mind and offer solutions rather than only problems." - Maheen Rahman

"If you're asking for something or pressing an issue that falls within your purview, then you have nothing to be sorry for," she writes. In fact, you'd owe an apology if you didn't do that and failed to do your job. So stop apologising.

6) Be mindful of the words you use.

According to an academic survey by Montana State University, it's common for women to diminish their demands or requests by the use of 'devaluing language'. Examples of this include phrases like “I just want to talk to you about…”, “Sorry for bothering you but can I…” and “I guess what I’m saying is…”.

The message we send by using such language is that our input is an interruption, not a valuable contribution to a conversation. So avoid words like “just”, “sorry” and “think” (which is better replaced by its clearer alternatives like “What I believe is…” or “What I know is...”.)

7) Display confident body language

Another way women diminish themselves is by adopting postures that minimise their presence.

However, there's really no reason why a woman shouldn't occupy as much space as a man would. Dr Melissa J. Williams of the Wall Street Journal writes that “women should feel free to drape their arm over the adjacent chair or touch a colleague’s arm when speaking…and that they shouldn’t hesitate to speak first, or interrupt if necessary.”

Another common minimising pose is holding your hands in the “fig-leaf” position, i.e. down, low and clasped. Instead, adopt a comfortable ‘neutral” position’, i.e. a place for your hands when they’re not gesturing. Ideally this ‘neutral’ position should be where your hands are waist height or above with the hands held or clasped loosely and comfortably.


Watch this space for tips on how men can encourage women in the workplace as part of our Women's Day coverage.

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