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Boost inclusion with this one surprising step: look around the room

Although most organisations aim to give all employees equal voices, the reality is that certain types of people dominate talking in meetings. Research by the American Political Science Review revealed that women speak 25% less than men on average in meetings where both men and women are present. A Sage study also found that both men and women are more likely to interrupt someone if they’re female. And another study by Prattle found that men spoke 92% of the time in conference calls. High-status employees speak more often in meetings and lower status employees from under-represented groups are not being heard. An interesting new study reveals one surprising way that leaders and managers can become more inclusive and foster equity in meetings: looking around the room.

Men still dominate speaking time in meetings, contrary to popular belief

In February 2021, Olympics-Tokyo chief Yoshiro Mori voiced his concern: "If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying". Yoshiro Mori, former prime minister of Japan, later resigned from the Tokyo committee. Are women really speaking more often than men in meetings? Research shows a different perspective. In a study of U.S. senators, those with more seniority and more legislative activity took up more time on the Senate floor — but only if they were men. Additional research showed that women are afraid of being perceived as too dominant and controlling, which is exactly what happened when they did speak up. Gender stereotypes are still prevalent. People expect men to be assertive and ambitious but women to be caring and other-oriented. A man who speaks is perceived as a confident expert, but a woman who speaks is perceived as aggressive or pushy. When women take the risk of speaking, they are often silenced by men.

In the Supreme Court, research shows that male justices are about three times as likely to interrupt female justices as one another. In 2015, when there were six men and three women on the bench, 66 percent of the interruptions were of the women.

To learn more about diversity and inclusion best practices in the workplace, download this free ebook “7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid with Diversity”. Watch ‘4 Ways Men can be Inclusion Champions’ to find out how men can support women and other minorities at work.

Leaders can level the playing field in meetings with a look

The Academy of Management Journal published a new research in 2020 titled ‘The Impact of Leader Eye Gaze on Disparity in Member Influence: Implications for Process and Performance in Diverse Groups’. The research acknowledged that demographic attributes, such as race, gender, and functional background, may create asymmetric influence patterns between group members in diverse groups, because these demographic characteristics are often associated with status differences. The study examined how to attenuate this disparity in member influence in diverse groups by focusing on the role of a leader’s gazing behavior.

Across two studies, researchers found that asymmetric influence patterns in which high-status members tend to wield greater influence in group decision-making processes were attenuated when a leader increased visual attention toward low-status members in the group.

This reduced disparity in member influence in turn improved group information elaboration and group performance in a collective decision-making task. The research later discussed what the theoretical and practical implications for leaders’ visual attention, diversity, group decision-making processes, and group performance would be. Interestingly, a simple change in where leaders look influenced who speaks in meetings and even improved team performance! To learn more about how to improve inclusion at work, read ‘5 ways to improve diversity and inclusion in your organization’.

As women speak less in meetings and men tend to interrupt more often, voices are not being heard equally at work. This disparity leads to lack of equal career opportunities for women and people of colour, which leads to retention issues and a less diverse workforce which is less innovative. Leaders can play a key role in fostering more equality and more inclusion in meetings, by simply paying more attention to their gaze to support inclusion and support women and people of colour. Employers also need to educate all their employees about equity in meetings by sharing research, leading by example and investing in learning and development and diversity and inclusion awareness. Find out how to become a more inclusive leader today by getting my new book: Inclusion: the ultimate secret for an organization’s success.

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