Updated: Feb 21
Most of us spend the majority of our working day in …. meetings! Whether we like them or hate them, meetings are where we interact with coworkers, prospects, clients, vendors, etc...If you talk to a female colleague about her experience in meetings, she will probably tell you about a time when she felt frustrated or dejected in a meeting. Perhaps she was asked to take notes or to get coffee, to schedule the follow-up meeting, perhaps she was talked over or just ignored, perhaps someone claimed credit for the idea she just shared. Even at the most forward-thinking companies with codes of conducts for meetings and inclusion policies, meeting behaviours can be biased. Women and people from marginalised groups may not feel bold to challenge the status quo. This is why allies like yourself can and should be allies. Here is how to make your meetings inclusive in 4 simple steps.
1. Monitor who speaks at meetings
In 2017, a Fortune study analysing hearings of a US Supreme Court found that women judges were interrupted 3 times more often than men and than women initiated only 4% of the interruptions. That same pattern appears across the tech industry. “Manterruptions” are a thing. One of the reasons women talk less at meetings is they don’t want to appear too talkative, according to research, it is like taking space. Women have good reasons to be cautious. If women talk in ways that’s associated with authority, they can be seen as “too aggressive”; if they don’t, they risk being underestimated.
Monitor who speaks in meetings and who does not speak. When someone is interrupted, interject and say you’d like to hear them finish. If you notice that someone is struggling to get into the conversation, say you’d like to hear their point of view. If you notice a repeat offender who interrupts frequently, pull them aside after the meeting and point it out to them. You could also nominate a gatekeeper to keep the conversations on track.
2. Observe people dynamics
In August 2018, The Washington Post wrote about how conservative commentator challenged candidate Alexandria Cortez to a debate offering to donate $10,000 to her campaign or a charity of choice if she accepted. The conservative commentator was not running for office and his offer of payment would have been a campaign violation. This was not an offer made in good faith. This was showing off. During meetings, some people might ask off-topic questions to test the presenter, undermine their credibility or authority and make themselves look smarter in the process. It’s a power play and can be incredibly distracting. Women don’t owe a response to off-topic questions from men or anyone else. Marginalised people shouldn’t have to defend themselves from disruptors who feel the need to minimise their credentials. You can be on the lookout for these kinds of questions and shut them down. If you are interested in learning more about inclusion, watch the video titled Inclusion Definition (The Best Ever!).
3. Assess who is listened to
One study by the Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll found that when male executives spoke more often, they were perceived to be more competent, but when female executives spoke more often, they were given lower competence ratings. The annual McKinsey and LeanIn.org Women in the Workplace report, which in 2019 surveyed 329 companies and more than 68,000 employees, found that half of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38 percent had others take credit for their ideas. Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who studies how men and women speak, found that many of the inequities in meetings can be boiled down to gender differences in conversation styles and conventions. That includes speaking time, the length of pauses between speakers, the frequency of questions and the amount of overlapping talk. More often than not, men and women differ on almost every one of those aspects, Tannen said, which leads to clashes and misunderstandings.
If you want to host inclusive meetings, make sure that you pay attention to who is listened to. Amplify and advocate those who need support in meetings; challenge yourself to notice and take action when interruptions happen; take note of how attendees speak in meetings and moderate speaking time if needed.
4. Evaluate who gets the credit
Let’s say a person of colour or a woman says something insightful in a meeting only to have it dismissed or ignored. Then someone else says the same thing later and it’s well received. The person who originally said it starts fuming inside: that’s bro-propriation or idea hijacking. During Barack Obama’s Presidency, women adopted a strategy they called “Amplification”. When one of the female colleagues made a key point, other women would repeat it. This approach forced others in the room to recognize their contribution. Try to repeat ideas from people from previous meetings. Show respect and help them create credibility by saying out loud that you learned from them. Give credit to the project owner even if they aren’t in the room. You can use your voice to stop ideas hijacking and cultivate a culture of credit in your meetings. Amplify and showcase ideas from people marginalised around you.
We can all create more inclusive meetings by becoming aware of the meeting dynamics as well as some common meeting patterns that reflect inequalities between gender, ethnic background and other dimensions. You can make your meetings more inclusive and equal by paying attention to who speaks, who interrupts, who gets credit and who gets listened to.